“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
–David Mamet, playwright & director
On Directing Film, p. 6
When we acquire robust technical skills, barriers to musical expression drop away.
We internally “hear” musical gestures, and then we make those gestures ring out with a natural quality that seems effortless.
Yet despite the spiritual nature of technical mastery, I find that aspiring musicians often confuse “technique” with “mechanics.”
As a result, many students don’t develop the technical command that they need.
“When we acquire robust technical skills, barriers to musical expression drop away.”
Musical Technique Defined
Although technique incorporates mechanical skills – such as how we’d move a limb, manage airflow, or control a reed – those mechanical aspects must be developed to serve musical goals. Otherwise, from an artistic perspective, they’d be useless.
As an illustration, technically proficient violinists can gracefully move their bows to modify tone, accent, articulation, and so forth at will, according to their expressive intent.
Violinists who possess mechanical ability yet lack technical prowess might move their bows with comparable mechanical efficiency but in ways that are disconnected from musical expression.
Hence, I concisely define technique as follows: The term “technique” refers to the means for executing musical ideas.
Below is a summary of the technique-building strategies that you’ll find on pages 94-98 of The Musician’s Way.
“I find that aspiring musicians often confuse ‘technique’ with ‘mechanics.'”
Three Strategies to Build Musical Technique
1. Organize a Regimen
A regimen for improving musical technique begins with setting goals and establishing a practice schedule.
I recommend that students document their aims using a practice sheet or notebook, and then abide by a consistent practice routine.
“The term ‘technique’ refers to the means for executing musical ideas.”
For instance, if a musician wants to advance her control in a particular register, she might gather some suitable exercises, etudes, and excerpts; she could also compose original ones.
Then, along with practicing repertoire and other material, she might work on those items for brief periods, several times per day. (Update: see Varied, Distributed and Interleaved Practice.)
Such regular practice is crucial because technical skills require steady nurturing if they’re to grow and remain hardy.
Even so, we need to set limits on our practice time because technical work uses select muscle groups that, if overused, could become injured.
So it’s crucial that we don’t practice any technique excessively but instead vary what we work on in practice sessions. Concurrently, we should take frequent breaks, employ balanced postures, and avoid sudden increases in total playing or singing time.
“Regular practice is crucial because technical skills require steady nurturing if they’re to grow and remain hardy.”
2. Emphasize Excellence
No less important than our practice schedule is the quality of our practice.
Deliberate, process-oriented practice gives rise to artistic and technical command; mindless repetition, by comparison, produces nothing of value.
“We need to set limits on our practice time because technical work uses select muscle groups that, if overused, could become injured.”
Every moment that we practice, therefore, we should embody Habits of Excellence, which I describe on pages 20-23 of The Musician’s Way as encompassing seven aspects: ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude.
When we steadfastly emphasize those seven habits, artistic excellence becomes our default setting both in practice and on stage.
3. Delve into Details
All accomplished musicians gain and maintain their technical fluency by delving into fine details of sound and execution.
For example, as we review scales and arpeggios, we should calmly notice any aspects of our execution that don’t feel or sound right and then unravel problems.
“Deliberate, process-oriented practice gives rise to artistic and technical command; mindless repetition, by comparison, produces nothing of value.”
That unraveling would entail, among other things, extracting technical ingredients and reviewing them in isolation.
Through such a deliberate refining process, creative and physical impediments melt away, and then artistic possibilities become limitless.
Preview The Musician’s Way and read reviews at Amazon.com.
The Beauty in Basics
Clear Goals, Clear Process
Habits of Excellence
© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © M. Stout Photography, licensed from Shutterstock.com
Hi Ryan – Thanks for the comment and for picking up a copy of The Musician’s Way!
The quick answer to your question is, yes! A balanced approach to practice will yield greater gains over time than one overly focused on a single practice zone.
It sounds like you’ve concluded that your practice has been overweighted toward technique. Still, you’ve grown used to that practice pattern, so it understandably feels strange to diverge from it.
Trust me: Your abilities to make music will improve most by learning attractive easy repertoire that requires you to apply your technique in artistic ways.
As the music you learn advances through the New, Developing, and Performance zones, you’ll build accuracy, expressiveness and other habits of excellence that make up the inclusive nature of playing.
Plus, you’ll grow your repertoire and have a great time in the process.
You can balance that out with a moderate amount of time devoted to the Technique & Musicianship zones.
Here’s wishing you great fun in your practice!
I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, just recently took up violin and study both instruments every day. I came back to guitar as an adult, having taken quite some time off from playing, and immediately threw myself into a practice routine that has consisted mostly of technical exercises (scales, licks, etudes, etc.). I have made great strides with some things, and failed dismally at others (alternate picking at my desired speed has been IMPOSSIBLE to achieve, so I am now dedicated to economy picking for fast runs across string sets).
All that to say, I have the book and just today got my notebook together and plan for the week, beginning tomorrow. Yay! I am already feeling like I don’t have enough time in the Technique zone, since my ENTIRE 2-3 hour practice is typically nothing but technique, improving over some backing tracks or a combo of both.
I really need to acquire some repertory and build working on theory, sight reading and the like into my practice sessions (I have a weekly teacher for that on guitar and another for all things on the violin: theory, technique, repertory, etc.).
I guess I am just worried that I won’t be able to keep up technique-wise if I cut so much time from that portion of study. Is it really possible to make appreciable speed and facility gains with so few recommended repetitions and such a small portion of time allotted to technique each day? I realize the quality of practice is key here, but coming from such an intensive regimen it just seems a bit too light.
I am really looking forward to making lots of progress this year with your excellent book. I received it on Friday and I am already more than halfway through it. 🙂
These are great strategies for improving technique but don’t forget to take some time and just play.
Perfect instructions for perfect practice in technique! Thank you!
You’re welcome, Ellen. Thanks for contributing!
Mamet forgot to mention psychotherapy. Great post.
Funny! Thanks, Justin.