Agility is practically the Holy Grail for any musician. To have a facile and nimble technique is why we spend hours playing scales and exercises.
What does agility look like?
Picture a gazelle bounding across the African savanna, dodging roots and rocks, changing direction with effortless grace and athleticism. Strength, grace, flexibility and speed in motion, the very definition of agility.
Then a predator threatens the gazelle. The gazelle takes off, running for its life, with the predator in fierce pursuit.
Suddenly, the gazelle makes a high, bounding leap, one that changes the direction of its flight and in so doing, confuses the predator.
This surprise leaping strategy is known as “pronking,” and it is one of the few lines of defense open to the gazelle. A gazelle’s first defense is to elude the predator, to evade the threat. It relies on its agility to rescue it from danger.
That’s the kind of agility we want for our fingers. We want them to fly across the strings, navigating the twists and turns of the music without stumbling and making beautiful music along the way. We want our fingers to be deft and reliable.
But how do we develop our fingers so that they can play with gazelle-like grace?
You may already suspect that the practice you’re doing right now won’t do it. Maybe you think that it will just appear after enough years of practice. Or maybe you’ve given up.
Don’t despair. There is a key to developing agility in your playing. The key is variety.
Remember how the gazelle runs? It’s not just a straight line get-away kind of run. It has the agility to make quick changes of direction and high leaps. For the gazelle, this is an instinctive behavior and reaction to a threat. We, however, will need to practice the skills that will give us options, choices we can make instantaneously because we have practiced them beforehand.
Take a moment to consider what having these choices at your command might mean for your playing. Here are just a few possibilities:
- You will be able to sight-read music without writing in fingering first.
- Your fingers will play more smoothly and evenly, all of them working well together.
- If you place the wrong finger accidentally while you are playing, your other fingers will be able to compensate so you don’t have to stop.
- You will know alternative fingering options other than those printed in the music.
You can begin to develop this kind of agility by adding some variety to your practice, particularly (but not exclusively) variety in your technical work.
Agility by Varying Fingerings
If we want our fingers to be able to cover for us when we play the wrong fingering, we have to give them practice playing in many different combinations.
You probably don’t want to practice your repertoire with alternative fingerings, but you could, and should, practice your scales and arpeggios with different fingerings. Start on a different finger, change up the accented notes, play your fingers in a different order.
This is where those LaRiviere exercises shine. I have always felt that his endless patterns with multiple fingerings for each were more than a little obsessive, but I must admit that they do the trick.
Developing agility is also my point with the Etude a Day Challenge. Rather than spend weeks working on just one pattern, switch etudes frequently, giving your fingers a wide range of patterns to play so they learn to adapt and move more nimbly.
The more flexibility you require from your fingers, the more reliable response you can expect from them.
Agility by Varying Tempo
Slow careful playing is good. Playing fast is good. Playing at the correct tempo is good. Playing at all of them is much better.
When you regularly require your fingers to do the same thing at different speeds, you are increasing their flexibility and agility.
- Don’t always play your exercises at the same metronome mark.
- When you are preparing a piece for performance, practice it at tempo as well as slightly above and well under tempo too. It’s good for your fingers and your concentration.
- Working on a tricky passage? Try pyramid-ing your tempo from slow to fast and back again. Then reverse it and play from fast to slow and back to fast.
Agility by Rhythmic Variation
Those scales, arpeggios and exercises can be made even more beneficial by practicing them in different rhythms. Instead of even eighth notes, try a long-short pattern, or a long-short-short pattern.
This works wonders to smooth out a tricky passage in a piece as well. Your fingers will play more evenly and securely.
Adding variety to your practice in all three of these areas will give your fingers a “repertoire” of choices, dozens of patterns that they have learned to play over time. Your finger will no longer be “one trick ponies;” they will be on their way to becoming graceful gazelles.