“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
–David Mamet, playwright, screenwriter, director
On Directing Film, (Penguin, 1992), 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 naturalness 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.
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 on at will.
Violinists who possess mechanical ability yet lack technical prowess might move their bows gracefully but in ways that are disconnected from any expressive intent.
Hence, I define technique as: 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.
Three Strategies to Build Musical Technique
1. Organize a Regimen
A regimen for improving 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 stick to a consistent practice routine.
For instance, if a musician wants to advance her control in a particular register, she might gather some suitable exercises and etudes; she could also compose original ones.
Then, along with practicing repertoire and other exercises, she might work on those materials 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.
But we also need to set limits because technique practice uses select muscle groups which, 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
Just as important as the steadiness of our practice time is its quality.
Attentive technical work during deliberate practice gives rise to artistic command, whereas mindless repetition 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.”
All accomplished musicians gain and maintain their technical fluency by delving into fine details.
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 this deliberate refining process, creative impediments disappear along with physical ones, and then artistic possibilities become limitless.
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© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © M. Stout Photography, licensed from Shutterstock.com