Building A Routine: Three Tempo Ranges

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This week we continue with part three in our series about building a personal practice routine. In the first part, we covered how to assign exercises specific to your goals, and in the second, how to determine proper tempos and repetitions for the exercises you choose.

This post will continue with a discussion on three different tempo ranges that I use, cleverly titled fast, medium, and slow. This concept is heavily influenced by rep ranges when exercising. There are generally three rep ranges when training: heavy, medium, and light. Heavy would be considered working with weight that’s difficult to complete 1-3 reps, medium would be difficult to complete 3-8 reps, and light would be considered 8-12 reps (although it could be as high as 15). Reps higher than 12-15 can be beneficial, but generally not for strength related goals.

Each of these rep ranges has it’s benefits. Heavy weights teach us how to struggle/grind and promotes the neurological adaptations necessary for teaching the body how to move heavy weight. All weight levels benefit from high levels of mental focus, but heavy weights force us into an acute focused state necessary to simply survive. Light weights create great time under tension, a necessity in building muscle, as well as mental endurance to stay engaged through longer sets. Higher repetition sets can also tax the cardiovascular system, allowing for greater work capacity and recovery. Medium weights borrows its benefits from both heavy and light weight.

Adapting that to music has been time intensive and humbling. While there are some similarities, it’s not exactly a 1-1 correlation. For starters, one of the biggest differences between getting better at the squat and improving as a musician is that music isn’t just a technical skill. Sure, there’s the physical act of playing, but we also need to incorporate the musical side, and that doesn’t always get ingrained by simply slowing things down. This is why understanding the benefits to all three tempo ranges and their application is so crucial to developing a well rounded practice routine.

Fast Tempos

Fast repetitions are everyone’s favorite to perform. It can feel great to play through a section of music or a whole piece to simply enjoy spending time making music. Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, fast tempos are also where the bulk of our bad habits are formed.

I approach this tempo range as an opportunity to test my abilities. When deciding to perform material at a fast tempo, I try to put myself in the headspace of a performance. It’s not just about the notes; I also want to determine what I think before I play, how I breathe, and how I release my air. Most of all, I’m concerned with developing my ability to focus for the length of time I am performing. High level focus is one of the most difficult aspects of high level performance. If you aren’t designing a space in your practice to improve your focus, you won’t get better at it.

Because of the intense nature of fast tempo work, I program a minimal amount of it in my routine. I usually perform just one repetition of a given section in this tempo range. This mimics the skill of actual performing, as we only get one shot in front of an audience or an audition as well.

As you read that last paragraph, I heard a number of people say to themselves: “Just once?? That can’t be enough! This doesn’t sound like it’s a good plan”. Again, we need to practice what we actually do. Performance is a one shot activity. The “normal” way of practicing where the player plays it incorrectly 9 times, then plays it 1 time correctly, and thinks they own it is a waste of time. We all know this to be true, but many of us don’t want to accept what the possible solution is. Don’t worry, your one repetition at a fast tempo isn’t the only time you’re going to work on that section during the week. This is why we have multiple tempo ranges: to earn the unique benefits derived from each.

Slow Tempos

We’ve all heard the benefits of practicing at a slow tempo, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse here. I’m going to suggest a few things to think about when implementing slow tempo work into your practice.

Slow tempo work is slower than you think. It’s not “kind of a little slower”. For many of us, it starts at half tempo. Some repertoire might not need to be half tempo, some might need to be slower. The goal of slow tempo work is not just to make it easier to play — it’s to provide an opportunity for you to show up to be the best player and musician you can be from the very first attempt.

At some point as we slow things down, we will find a tempo that is so slow that technical concerns will no longer be an issue. That’s where true slow tempo work is done. You should be able to come close to playing everything exactly the way you want it to go. We’re hoping to be the player we WANT to be at the performance tempo RIGHT NOW.

This requires a few things. One, it requires you to develop a high definition picture of where you are headed. You cannot ingrain better habits if you don’t know what you are trying to improve. Do you need more focus in your airstream? Do you need to play with more intensity and less volume? Maybe you need to support a low note with air so the big interval jump that follows sounds smooth and easy. Before we can move to actually practicing, you need to know what you want to improve. Coaches/teachers/mentors and listening are vital here. It is very difficult to think our way into better playing in a vacuum.

Once you know what you want to improve and how to do it, then we move on to the hard part. EVERY note note of EVERY repetition needs to be played with the goal in mind. We cannot let a wasted note go by. Well, we can. Life will go on. But the more “good” notes we play on average, the faster we will ingrain those habits. Of all of the things about improving that are important to consider, focused detail work is at the top. We can’t slack on demanding improvement. 1% improvement each day of the course of 6 months will add up to a lot.

Finally, this is where the bulk of your work will be. This is where you make up for only 1-2 fast tempo repetitions. Do as many as you need to gain a deep understanding of how to play a passage the way you want to, then stop for the day. Come back the next day and try to build on that understanding. This kind of practice over the long term is what deep practicing is all about.

Medium Tempos

As I said before, medium tempo work has benefits from the other two tempos ranges. It’s not too slow and it’s not too fast; the Goldilocks tempo range, if you will. It’s slow enough that the technical difficulties are lessened, but it’s still fast enough that you can hear the musical line you are trying to convey. I’ve learned that when I used to do slow tempo work in my practice, I was really doing work in the medium tempo range.

When programming repetitions, you want to do more medium reps than fast, but not as many as the slow tempo. You improve in this range, but it’s mostly meant for trying to bridge the gap between fast and slow. If you practiced your material at a slow tempo and immediately jumped to a fast tempo, it would most likely feel uncomfortable. Even if you made progress at the slow tempo, you need some of this Goldilocks medium tempo range to help connect the slow tempo work to the fast tempo difficulty.

Hopefully this has helped you gain a better understanding of some of the tempo considerations for programming your practice routine. As you can see, there is a lot to understand. It can seem daunting, but learning how to apply these concepts to your practice is how we build confidence in our own ability to improve.


If you want to work together to build a routine, let me know. For the price of a lesson, we can design a one month routine that is tailored to your playing, goals, preferred exercises, schedule, and more. I receive great joy helping others find out they can take ownership of their own process. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions! Use the contact page on my website, or find me on social media!


Until next time,

Ryan


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