man playing a violin“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.

“I find that aspiring musicians often confuse ‘technique’ with ‘mechanics.'”

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 use 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 gracefully but in ways that are disconnected from musical expression.

Hence, I 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.

“The term ‘technique’ refers to the means for executing musical ideas.”

Three Strategies to Build Musical Technique

1. Organize a Regimen

The Musician's Way book coverA 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.

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 our practice sessions, take frequent breaks, 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 scheduling is the quality of our practice.

Deliberate, process-oriented technique practice gives rise to artistic command; mindless repetition, by comparison, produces nothing of value.

Every moment that we practice, therefore, we should embody Habits of Excellence: ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude.

Then, excellence – that is, artistic excellence – becomes our default setting both in practice and on stage.

“Every moment that we practice, we should embody Habits of Excellence.”

3. Delve into Details

All accomplished musicians gain and maintain their technical fluency by delving into fine details of their sound and execution.

For example, as we review scales and arpeggios, we should notice any aspects of our execution that don’t feel or sound right and then unravel problems.

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.

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The Beauty in Basics
Clear Goals, Clear Process
Glorious Details
Habits of Excellence

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © M. Stout Photography, licensed from