Some ideas on playing semi-quavers easily (and musically)

It is a common experience of the improving player to feel anxious about trickier music – the more notes on the page, the more worried we feel! But there are strategies for improving the way we can approach ‘note-heavy’ sections of music so that we can play them without feeling concerned. We can apply practice techniques to get the semi-quavers under our fingers, and we can work on grouping notes so that they sound beautiful while still being relatively easy to play.

This week we’ll talk about strategies for learning the notes. Let’s get started.

Learning the notes, AKA taming the semi-quavers!

The first challenge with tricky passages is learning to play them! There are a number of practice strategies that you can use to help you become familiar with fast or tricky passages. The ideas below are the ones that I and my colleagues use most frequently to help learn the tricky bits.

Playing slowly

I’ve talked about this before in a previous blog, but it’s so important that I’m going to mention it again. The best way to learn to play things that need to be fast is to start by playing them slowly. In the words of YouTuber and bassist Adam Neely, you should begin by playing glacially slow.

I know that this takes a degree of discipline. Particularly when you know the work, it is really tempting to try to play at something approaching concert speed. The trouble with doing this is that you are likely to ‘fall off’, make mistakes, or find ways of ‘fudging’ your way through the passage and never really learn how to play it properly. Whenever you come up to that section, you’ll become tense because you’re not quite sure whether you’ll manage it today. It is SO much better in the long run to do the work playing slowly – and even more slowly than you think is reasonable – until you have developed the procedural memory to be able to play the passage more quickly.

Working backwards and ‘chunking’

In combination with playing slowly, you could try this technique – one of my personal favourites for learning a passage. You start with the final few notes and work on playing those well. Once you feel you have that final ‘chunk’ under control, you work on the few notes that come immediately before it, and work on playing them securely. This is your second ‘chunk’. When you can play the penultimate chunk well, you can try to join it and the final chunk together. Keep on working in this way until you’ve ‘chunked’ the whole of the passage you are trying to learn.

Why work backwards? For the simple reason that you will have repeated the end of the passage more often. Typically, when a player works from the beginning, they learn the beginning of the run very successfully, but their knowledge tails off towards the final sections of the run. This is problematic, because their concentration is likely to become harder to sustain as the run continues. So by the end of the tricky passage, they are at the limit of their concentration just as the security of their knowledge is also lessened!

If you work in the way I suggest, you actually know the semi-quaver run more securely as it goes along, meaning that you won’t have to worry about taxing your concentration.

Playing with rhythms

This is a favourite strategy of my duo colleague. Basically, if you have straight semi-quavers in front of you, try playing them in a dotted rhythm. Then try playing them with the dotted rhythm reversed. Be creative, and try to find other ways of breaking up the notes into different rhythms and patterns.

This strategy helps because it encourages you to loosen your ‘tunnel vision’ focus on the phrasing as it stands in the music. You are spending extra time on half the notes, giving you time to think about what note comes next. It seems likely that it also helps to formulate stronger and broader traces in your procedural memory. This will help later if you need to change your interpretation in order to fit with other players/accompanists.

Alternate fingerings

I and my colleagues are firm believers in using alternate fingerings to make life easier. The principle I follow is to try to keep at least one finger still on the instrument to help keep it steady while all the others are flying about! So if I have the following pattern in a passage for treble recorder:

Using alternate fingering to play notes like these helps make fast semi-quavers easier.

I will be using the 0 34 fingering for the E rather than 0 1, as it entails fewer finger movements.

Go through your passage, and if you come across something involving a lot of finger movement, see if you can find an alternate fingering that will make it easier.

Playing with articulation

Sometimes you’ll run across a passage with semi-quavers all slurred, or in groups of 2 or 4. If a passage has a lot of slurs, work on learning the notes without the slurring, or by changing the slurs to every 2 or 4 notes. Sometimes just playing with the articulation is enough to make the notes easier.

You may also find that if you have difficult jumps that the notes sound more clearly; at this point you may even consider whether the articulation in the printed music is playable for you. As a rule, I would rather the note sounded well and clearly than get the articulation score-perfect and have notes not come out clearly.

Little and often

When learning difficult passages, working on them in small concentrated bursts tends to be more effective than devoting a long practice session to just a few bars. There is a limit to what our powers of concentration can manage, and current advice from learning experts is that you will do a better job of strengthening the memory traces if you come back to the passage after a break.

Even 5 or 10 minutes can be enough to make progress on a chunk or two. Do that three or four times in a day, and you will have made significant progress on your tricky passage.

If you don’t have the time or it isn’t practical to keep coming back to your instrument over the course of a day, then do 5 minutes on the tricky passage, change to a different piece and work on it, and then come back to the tricky passage. Interleaving your practice in this way is a tried and tested practice technique.

I hope these practice ideas come in useful! Next time I’ll talk about the concept of grouping semi-quavers so we can make them both more musical AND more playable.

Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.


* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.