Overcoming the Traps of Technique

Technique, in musical terms, refers to the physical ability of a musician to control the mechanics of their instrument in order to produce a desired musical effect. Whether the mechanics refer to buttons, keys, slides, or vocal chords, technique comes down to how fast and how precise we can move various parts of our body to control our instrument.

When learning any new piece, it can be easy to become over fixated on mastering technical demands. As musicians who want to do it right, we naturally want to successfully execute the correct notes and rhythms at the performance tempo of the piece. Oftentimes, this requires the drilling and repetition of a few especially tricky technical passages within the piece (passages with many notes within a short period of time, complex rhythms, difficult finger exchanges, etc.) However, sometimes we can become so preoccupied with mastering the technical challenges of a piece that other important musical elements, like phrasing, character, and dynamic sensitivity, fall to the wayside. How can we better address technique in a way that serves our ability to overcome the demands of our repertoire but doesn’t overtake our ability to play with musicality, grace, and nuance?

Changing our relationship to technique first requires a revaluation of what musical “virtuosity” means to us. A trap a lot of young musicians fall into is the notion of virtuosity equating to playing as fast and furious as possible. Certainly, there is a place for physical demanding music that highlights the dexterity and showmanship of the musician, but flying fingers isn’t everything. If the composer is trying to communicate a message that says something more than “look what I can do,” then we must see technique as a means to the ends of communicating that message, rather than seeing technique as the end in itself. In other words, technique is what allows us to get the notes to come out at the right time and in the right place. Once the notes are there, a musician then has the capacity to shape those notes into music, that is, to infuse them with a message or a deeper emotional meaning.

That is not to say that technique doesn’t matter. Having a solid technique is essential to becoming a whole musician. We are simply changing our relationship to technique. A musician who has become over fixated on technique hears only the notes. A musician who uses technique to get them to where they want to go can hear the notes as music. An audience can tell the difference. The audience will hear what the musician hears, because what the musician hears comes out through their playing.

So how can we change our relationship to technique? Let’s start by stepping back and assessing what technique actually is. I like this conception of technique, shared to me by flutist John Thorne in a recent masterclass: think of technique as a choreography of the fingers. It can be easy to get bogged down in the individual notes when trying to tackle a tough passage. However, thinking of our hand movements as a flow of patterns, rather than a series of separate events, allows us to focus on how one note moves to the next.

This perspective helped me think of technical passages in more musical terms. Rather than looking at a tough spot on a page with a surge of panic and feeling the need rush or “muscle through” all the notes I began to pay more attention to groupings between the notes and how the notes relate to each other, especially in terms of the intervallic distance between notes and the relative structural importance of different notes within the phrase. So now that we are able to conceptualize technique as a choreography that helps us execute the music, what are some ways we can develop our technique as musicians?

 

1. Practice your scales and technical exercises.

It should be a given that practicing your scales is important, but I’ll mention it here anyway. Music (Western music, at least) is generally based in major or minor keys, and thus many note patterns are simply different combinations of notes from the (hopefully familiar) scales of the circle of fourth or fifths. By practicing your major and minor scales regularly (as well as major/minor thirds, fourths, and other intervals), you are essentially reinforcing your basic vocabulary skills to speaking in the language of a given key. When encountering a busy-looking technical passage, ask yourself if the notes are based off an identifiable scale. This will turn it from an unknown mass to something recognizable.

If encountered by a passages in music that is rooted in an obvious major or minor scale, ask yourself if it is based off of another pattern. A pentatonic, whole tone, octatonic, or another grouping of notes? From here, you can create exercises based on the scale of the technical passage that you can use in your warm-up. Ultimately, you want to be able to execute any possible finger exchange between the notes in that key.

 

2. Slow Practice or Fast Practice?

Is it best to practice a busy technical passage at the performance tempo, or start at a slower tempo you can manage and gradually increase the speed of the metronome? Slower practice can be useful because you may get a better sense of how the choreography feels in the hands. At a slower tempo, you have more time within each rep to think about and isolate the exact finger exchanges that are particularly challenging within the passage. Most importantly, practicing slowly allows us to be practice with a greater attention to detail on the subtler nuances of a technical passage that would otherwise be too fast to accurately observe when practicing up to tempo. (For more information on how to effectively practice slowly, see Noa Kageyama’s related article.)

When practicing slowly, however, keep in mind that you are essentially ingraining in your ears and muscle memory the way a passage feels when it is played slowly. You may have built up the neural connections that tell you how to play the passage accurately when it is slow, but not when it is fast. Of course, this means that you would need to gradually speed up your practice tempo (see Gerald Klickstein’s article on strategies for making this slow-to-fast transition). Try also practicing at the performance tempo, but in small chucks. Start with one note, and gradually add in the notes that precede and follow it. Don’t add a note to your chunk until you have mastered the current chunk with complete accuracy. Be patient – this method will take a lot of reps, and a lot of time.

I recommend that you be intentional about whether you decide to practice a passage slowly or at tempo. Decide, for example, to devote a single practice session or devote learning a single piece to either slow or fast practice. You may find that the best method will vary depending on the type of music you are playing.

 

3. Find the problem note.

Oftentimes we call a passage “technically challenging” when we always end up getting stuck in the same spot. You may have identified a “problem note” of the passage, the note that your fingers always get tripped up on, or the note that never seems to speak. However, in many cases you’ll find that it is the note before the problem note that’s causing the problem. Why? Remember, technique isn’t about the notes, but the choreography of the notes, or the relationship between each note. Consider how you are arriving to the problem note from the previous note. Try starting the passage, but put a fermata on the note before the suspect note. Now, consider some ways that you can better prepare for the next note. How are the hands balanced on the instrument? What are you doing with your air stream and support?

Understanding the relationship between the notes of a technical passage helps build a stronger “intervallic awareness.” Throughout your repetitions in practice, pay attention to the differences in how you use your body, embouchure, and air when moving up or down different intervals – for example, a 2nd versus a  5th versus an octave. Like being able to gauge how much energy you’ll need to jump across a puddle, as you practice you will become more aware of what exactly you need to do with your body to prepare for an interval in any musical context (which can be especially useful in sight-reading scenarios).

 

4. Dealing with tricky rhythms

A passage can also be technically demanding because of challenging rhythmic demands. First, remember to subdivide. But if you still find yourself having trouble getting a rhythm consistet and even in the fingers, try switching your metronome to beat on the offbeat rather than the downbeat. This requires the brain to more actively subdivide by filling in the gaps of the missing downbeats, and can be especially helpful for passages with rhythms divisible by 4 or 8.

Additionally, try changing the rhythmic groupings of the passage. Count how many total notes make up the technical passage. Figure out what numbers that total is divisible by (that are not the same as the groupings already written on the page.) For example, say you have a passage made up of three groups of four 16th notes, or twelve total notes. Rather than practicing the passage as three groups of four, twelve is also divisible by six, so try practicing the passage as two groups of six notes in various rhythm patterns (two eighths and 4 sixteenths, 4 sixteenths and 2 eighths, etc.) This method is useful because it can reveal where or how you are tripping up if you weren’t previously certain. It forces your brain to think about the passage in a different way, helping you get out of any old habits your fingers may be stuck in after repeating it so many times in the as-written rhythm.

 

One Last Note

A teacher once told me that technique is like a savings account. You build it up slowly, over time. Whether practicing slowly or at performance tempo, building up a solid technique that you can count on requires patience and repetition. But remember, while technique is necessary, it isn’t everything. The purpose of technique is to be expressive, not just to become a one-trick person pony who can impress an audience by playing fast. Use technique as a tool to express the meaning and message of the music you play.