Are you in the technique trap?
Maybe you have managed to escape the trap, or maybe you just don’t yet know you’re in it.
What is the technique trap? It’s the practice path that turns out not to be a path at all, but a circle that leads nowhere new.
Perhaps this sounds familiar…You slog away at your technical practice – scales, exercises, etudes – with the expectation of good results. You know it will take time to develop your skills, but you have confidence that over time you will see progress. But should it really take this long?
Over time, that situation leads you to the next level of the trap. You still spend time at your technique practice but your heart isn’t in it. Everyone tells you that you need to do this work, but you seem to get more done when you just practice your pieces. Besides, scales and exercises aren’t real music anyway.
Or perhaps you’ve reached the lowest level of the trap, where you’ve given up on technical work. You haven’t seen results yet and you have come to believe you never will.
Escaping from the trap and getting great results from your technical practice requires only two things: clearing up whatever bad habits may have led you into the trap and setting in place better habits that will keep you from getting caught again.
I’m going to start with the assumption that you understand the importance of a strong technique. You can only learn and play music, and this includes improvisation, that you are technically able to handle. Your technique isn’t just about playing fast; it’s about playing…period. If your technique can’t manage it, you won’t be able to play it.
Technique Trap Habit 1: Autopilot
At some point we are all guilty of this. We play our scales and exercises and let our minds wander. I know that there are musicians who watch television or even read while they do technical practice.
The problem is that technical practice requires observing the details while you work. For us harpists, these details include listening for finger buzzes, checking our posture, watching the action of every finger, listening for an even tone, noticing and releasing tension, and more. In short, if you aren’t paying attention every minute that you practice technique, you have wasted that minute.
This is the easiest habit to fix. Turn off everything else and pay attention. You will actually find that this work is interesting and absorbing as you begin to see what you need to fix and begin to actually fix it, rather than simply repeat it.
Technique Trap Habit 2: Too Broad a Brush
Practicing and developing technique is all about detail and specifics. You can’t do a “once-over lightly” and expect to make strides. That sort of broad brush approach is what a warm-up does, but it is not targeted technical practice.
Effective technical practice has a specific objective: clarity, precision, tone, accuracy, speed, agility. You likely want to develop all of those skills, but each of them will require a slightly different method of work. Focus on what you want to achieve this time and choose a suitable process. Next practice session choose a different objective and a different process.
One easy way to achieve this is to use a variety of exercises and etudes. Each will help you focus on a particular goal and by using different exercises, you will be sure to work through different skills.
I often set a weekly or monthly rotation for my technical practice. I enjoy the variety and my fingers benefit from the changing workout.
Technique Trap 3: It’s in My Music
It’s tempting to think that your repertoire practice will substitute for technique work. If you have to practice that passage slowly, doesn’t that do the same thing as an exercise?
Yes and no.
It certainly will help your technique and it will help you perfect that passage. Often, however, our concerns about correct notes and fingering can prevent us from truly focusing on the technical aspect of the passage. Also, no “real music” can provide the same intense concentration on a single skill as a well-crafted exercise.
So while I encourage my students to use excerpts from their repertoire study as technique practice, I prefer to use that to supplement to, rather than as a substitute for their regular technical work.
One final note: if your technical work isn’t getting you results or if you find yourself very resistant to actually doing technical work, I have some ideas for you which I will share in next week’s blog post. Stay tuned!