Technique – An Introduction

The compartmentalization of musicianship can lead to several blocks and disconnects in our practice and performance. We study theory separately from technique, technique separately from repertoire and repertoire separately from improvisation. This can lead to large gaps in artistic development because we tend to pigeonhole ourselves way too soon and too often. We decide that we can improvise but can’t read. We can read but can’t memorize. We can memorize but we can’t do Hanon. We hate theory but love repertoire.

It’s as if the musical dots are discouraged from being connected!

Scales, arpeggios, etudes and other technical exercises are often presented as mindless athletic drills separate from playing music. They may increase our athleticism but decrease our musicality and awareness… Especially when they are practiced with no intent or awareness.

This mindless way of practicing can also have a detrimental effect on our attitude towards our own playing and our judgement of others. We discount other players for being too technical. Others dismiss our playing as being too technical. We get frustrated by what we can’t do. We think that our technique gets in the way of our expression.

However, the technique (or lack of) is not the issue at all – it’s the intent behind the technique. Practicing our instruments with no intent to accomplish something musical or no awareness of how we sound, makes technique the end of the means. Sadly, it’s often all we have to show of ourselves when we play our instruments. Our chops are merely part of the whole picture – maybe even invisible to most if we are truly creating art.

I would like to share some philosophies that have helped my technique practice time be more productive and musical. Then I will get into very specific practice methods that help curb the isolation between technical work and the other musicianship elements.

First, let’s look at a definition of “technique.” Technique can be defined as “a method of performance; way of accomplishing.”

If we understand when we sit down to work out our scales, etudes, etc., that they are in fact “methods of performance” our focus and creativity will increase. And if we saw this part of our practice as a “way of accomplishing,” we would have much more motivation and a positive attitude.

If we approach technique practice as anything other than a method of performance, the dreaded autopilot will take over. Then we get bored… We lose focus… We develop bad habits… We want to quit… We waste large chunks of time each day that we can never get back.

As artists, I think it is essential to always ask ourselves, “What do we want to accomplish?”

Do we want to impress everyone with how fast we play? Do we want to impress everyone with how much soul we have? Do we want to show everyone how much we know? Do we want to show everyone how we don’t have chops and don’t need them? Do we just want to play for fun? Do we want to please our teachers? Do we want approval from our peers or parents?

These are all ego-driven motivations that depend on our relationship to something outside of ourselves. These reasons to play music typically lead to short-lived peaks, really frustrating valleys and practice that doesn’t help us improve to our potential or fulfill us artistically.

Whether we realize it or not, when we go to our instrument we become an artist. The artist is supposed to be a messenger – to communicate. The source of the art lies within all of us. Technique is simply a conduit to bring the artistic source within to our instrument and eventually our audience – even if we’re playing for ourselves.

A prerequisite to technique practice is to know what and how you want to communicate. A purpose and sound is what we are trying to accomplish. Technique is merely the way to create music – artistic music.

Technique develops our sound, our tone, our touch and our facility. In other words, it’s the creation, delivery and development of our sound that is our musical fingerprint. It’s something that we should always be conscious of in practice and performance. It takes relentless focus and awareness to practice technique in a way that will give us a solid voice.

It is very detrimental to play a scale (or even a note) without having a plan – without deciding and knowing what you are to accomplish during that repetition. This is why we can so easily play a gig and not really remember how we got from the downbeat to the end of the set.