Do you think you know what the essential elements of technique are?
I used to think I did. From early on in my harp studies, they were drilled into my head, if not always into my fingers; elbows, wrists in, thumbs up, etc. I learned what amounted to a complete catechism of the points of harp technique.
Lately, however, I’ve been considering technique from a wider perspective. What if technique could be described in a way that would be applicable to any musical instrument? Are there basic technical requirements, essential elements, that supersede instrument-specific points?
Assuming that the goal of any technique, no matter the instrument (and of course, this includes the voice), is to foster more adept and expressive music performance, then the aims of technical development must be identical too.
I have identified four essential elements of technique, overarching concepts that reveal the true purpose of technical study. What is interesting about them is that they are music-focused; they are why you practice technique, not how. And because they are directed toward a musical outcome, they may help you bring new energy and focus to your daily technical practice.
Essential Elements 1: Reliability
Perhaps the most obvious element of a strong technique is its reliability. A well-developed technique is consistent and dependable. It provides the musician with the freedom and confidence to be musically expressive.
Developing this stable foundation requires considerable attention and focus over a long period of time. If you want your technique to produce consistent results, you must be consistent in your practice. Be sure that you understand the specific points of your technique and review each regularly, continually observing, evaluating and correcting as you practice.
Essential Elements 2: Speed
A technique that is only comfortable at one speed is like a box of paints with only one color. Speed, or tempo, is a vital component of musical expression, so if you are to play musically, you need to be able to play at a wide variety of speeds – largo, presto and everything in between.
From a practical standpoint, this means that not all your technical practice should be slow practice. You need to develop your technique through a full range of tempi. And don’t wait for your slow and careful technique to be totally correct before you work at a faster speed; you will get more benefit from working regularly at a variety of speeds.
Essential Elements 3: Vocabulary
If our technique is to be reliable and consistent, we need to train it to be completely comfortable with the tasks it will need to perform. While scales and arpeggios are two of the basic building blocks for any technique, there are other note combinations that are part of the vocabulary particular to each instrument. They are often referred to as “idiomatic patterns.”
Every instrument has books of exercises and studies devoted to the most common and fundamental patterns and techniques. These books often are lengthy and repetitive, and with good reason; lots of repetition on the greatest number of common patterns will lead to that “automatic response” that helps you read and learn music faster, and perform it more reliably.
Essential Elements 4: Flexibility
Finally, when your technique is strong and reliable, you have the ultimate superpower – the ability to adapt “on the fly” to changing or unexpected situations. Missing one note or fingering doesn’t mean that the whole passage will fall apart. Your technique has the flexibility to instantly play a different finger pattern or jump to a different note.
This isn’t just recovery potential. It is invaluable for improvisation too; your improvisation will only be as free as your technique is. It doesn’t matter if you can hear it in your head, if you can’t play it.
Challenge question: Do you see ways in which this broader look at technique could change the focus of your technical work? What will you do differently in your practice this week?