Have you got ‘backing track’ syndrome?

When I first started learning the flute it was in the days where you had to buy separate books for each exam piece and there was no such thing as a CD or downloadable backing track (showing my age now!).

Instead we lived next door to a lovely lady who played the piano and mum would send me off regularly to practice my tunes with her. We explored not only the exam music, but all kinds of wider repertoire and often played just for a fun sight-read. I loved those sessions and credit her with helping me develop valuable ensemble and reading skills.

Fast forward to today and students come to their lessons clutching ‘exam packs’ which have everything they need for the exam, including a ‘download code’ to access performances and piano accompaniment tracks of their pieces.

So what’s the problem?

Some time ago a student was playing through one of her exam pieces and I couldn’t understand why she was rushing and losing evenness with some of the faster semiquaver passages. This was particularly perplexing as when we played it a couple of weeks before, things were ticking along nicely.

After a few moments focusing on these sections it suddenly occurred to me to ask, “have you been playing this a lot with the backing track recently?”. The reply was as suspected and I now call this ‘backing track syndrome’!

Some of the symptoms tend to be:

  • rushing which has developed from trying to keep time with the CD, resulting in loss of control and unevenness
  • inability to play at any other tempo than the one ingrained in their psyche, sometimes leading to musical meltdown!
  • losing musicality as expression goes out of the window in the effort to ‘keep up’ with the tempo in their head
  • lack of individuality in their performance as students try to clone their playing to that of the CD

These days I pre-empt the issue by having a chat about the pros and cons of the tracks before it can take hold. But if needed, some of the cures I have come up with include:

  • a complete ban on playing with the track until cured – this is ‘Susan’s law’ for one week (or however long needed) and must not be broken!
  • playing the music at many different speeds during the lesson – including at a ridiculously deathly slow pace
  • trying to play along with me clapping a variable beat – I intentionally get slower or faster in random places
  • use of Speedshifter at home can be useful (an ABRSM app/software that lets you change the tempo of a track) at all kinds of different speeds – but this activity is restricted to ensure musicality is not lost
  • helping them get back in touch with the music rather than the speed – by focusing on things like bringing out the storytelling side of it to ensure musicality remains

I believe that backing tracks can be very useful if used with caution, but some students do seem to get caught up with trying to reach the metronome marking at the cost of all else. 

Ultimately the speed marking is not the ‘be all and end all’ of the piece and shouldn’t detract from making music. An expressively and musically aware performance counts for far more.

If you are a music teacher I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and if you have any useful cures yourself.

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