Clearing Up the Technique Mystique

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Fotolia_39603360_XS.jpgWhat is your technique? Which method do you play? Which of those potentially conflicting factions do you belong to?

Like other musicians, we harpists certainly have many choices. There is French method and Russian method, Salzedo, Grandjany and more, plus equally specific folk harp methods. Do you even know which one you use? Or – horror of horrors – don’t you use any particular method?

This technique issue can be a big stumbling block, dividing students, teachers and performers into camps where loyalty and partisanship can end up excluding and dividing people who all love and play the same instrument.

I believe that having and following a technique is essential to the development of any musician, but I don’t believe that any one method is intrinsically superior to the others. If that were the case, we would only have fabulous performers from one of those many schools of thought.

So rather than trying to determine the “best” technique or method, let’s look at what “a technique” is, what it should do for you, and how it can help you play better, sound better and stay healthier.

First, what exactly is a technique or method?

A technique or method is an organized system designed to use specific physical positions and motions to produce specific results. This definition encompasses the WHY, the HOW and the WHAT of a technique.

The WHAT are the results you are to expect from virtually any technique. They are the qualities we seek in our playing: fluidity, agility, speed and musicality among them. These elements of a well-played and musical performance form the ultimate goal of any method.

Every method seeks to show you HOW to produce those results by using your hands, arms, breath and body in particular ways. For us harpists, our technique (whichever technique!) tells us that it isn’t enough to simply play the string with your finger. You use your finger at a specific angle, close it or not into your hand, keep your knuckles curved or flat, hold your elbows up or down, etc.

But a method is not just one instruction, or even an instruction for each circumstance you encounter in your playing.

The essence of a method is that it is a system, an entire organized plan for using your physical movement in a consistent way. The system, whichever one it is, reflects one idea of what the best way is to achieve reliable and expressive musicianship. The method puts forth the WHY; it tells you, “We do it this way BECAUSE it allows us to get the results we want.”


What does a technique or method do for you?

  • Consistency. The systematic approach of a technique will provide you with the foundation to produce consistent results. If you follow the principles of a method carefully, your playing should be reliable, efficient and smooth. Think about having fingers that are secure, dependable, strong and flexible. That’s the result of following a technique.
  • Problem-solving. A technique will give you the information you need to work through difficulties. Those tricky passages you encounter can all be addressed by implementing the elements of correct technique. (Assuming you have taken the trouble to learn them…)
  • Reminder. A method will serve as a touchstone for reminding you of the correct way to play. You shouldn’t merely play scales or exercises, but you should play them concentrating on the precise way to execute each note, to reinforce technical requirements and strengthen proper habits.
  • Healthy playing. A technique will support your playing health by showing you the most efficient way to play. It should take into account your whole body, so that your playing can be relaxed and tension-free. The method will show you how to use your energy effectively to create the music, to reduce unnecessary motion and to prevent possible strain and injury.

Do I need to pick one?

Yes and no. Starting with a particular method is extremely helpful because it gives you a system to follow, so that you will develop facility on the instrument more quickly. It’s much easier to learn when you have rules and guidelines to follow.

But there is no harm in changing methods. If you change teachers or decide that another method suits you better for any reason, you can change. And if you end up mixing some elements of one method with those of another, don’t worry. In my opinion, although I play Salzedo method, there are elements of other techniques that I admire and adopt, and even share with my students. On the other hand, until you have a solid technical foundation, experimentation tends to lead you away from good results, not toward them.

So here’s an assignment: Make a list of the key elements in the technique or method that you use. Use that list as a guide as you play your scales or exercises this week. Don’t know what those elements are? Ask a teacher! Don’t have a particular technique? Go and learn one!

How is your technique helpful to you? Tell us in the comments…


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  • Michelle

    Thank you. Great article!
    I play the Salzedo method. I think having this solid foundation has really helped me because without it, I feel I would be lost. Without a technique to follow, one can develop bad and harmful habits and not realize what the problem is or how to fix it.
    I try to use and apply the Salzedo method in my practicing everyday. It is good to focus and think about the foundation of your technique and apply it to everything you play.


  • Hank

    Hi Anne – I have really enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to reading more.

    I studied many years with Lucile Lawrence after switching from a Renie teacher. I had double joints, uneven fingers (sound), and some arm issues due to position. After one summer with Ms. Lawrence – and lots of hard work I changed my technique – starting over with the Method book after 10 years of playing the harp (while playing Symphonie Fantastique with the orchestra – LOL.

    I have a couple of thoughts on the technique issue as well. I completely agree with your statement that you need the foundation of one technique before experimenting. There is no way to get the whole of a technique in 4 years or a masterclass etc. There are many years spent training the muscles, finger action, tone creation etc.

    When I notice the sound/tone drop or something is uncomfortable, the first place I start to look is at my technique – did my arm fall etc.

    There are many techniques and teachers that have methods of teaching that work. I work hard to listen to each player and enjoy their musicianship as it is presented.


    • Anne Post author

      That’s a great story, Hank! And I agree – incorporating a technique is a long haul process, but it is so worth it. It’s the foundation and the fix, as you say, for everything.


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