The Way You Do the Thing You Do: Mechanics, Technique and Method

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Have you ever thought about how you play music, about how you do what you do?magic

It’s not just about style. The way you play, what you actually do to make the music happen has much more significance than just style.

And it’s not magic either, not pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Musicians work and practice hard to be able to produce flowing melodies, rippling scales and arpeggios, beautifully shaped phrases and an even tone.

But maybe there is magic that happens. We experience that magic in a performance by a master when the performer and instrument almost seem to become one being. There is a sense of ease with no wasted motion and no extraneous gesture. We sense that the physical exertion of the performer is exactly what is required to produce the music. no more and no less.

That magic is not an accident, of course. It is the result of years of practice dedicated to physical training with an artistic goal, teaching your body to make music.There are three different levels to the physical training that leads to mastery: mechanics, technique and method. Those levels overlap at some points, but together they form a path to greater proficiency and a deeper understanding of your musical craft.

Mechanics are the physical means you use to create sound on your instrument. Whether you are plucking or bowing a string or vibrating a reed, there are specific things that you must do to produce a sound. Do them well and you get a good sound. But if your bow pressure isn’t constant, or your knuckles collapse or your breath control is poor, your sound will suffer.

Technique goes a step further. Technique is the refinement of your mechanics to produce the best results reliably and repeatedly. Think of the difference between mechanics and technique this way: if you need to pound a nail into a board, mechanics tells you that you need to use something hard and heavy. Technique tells you that a hammer will work better than a brick, because it is designed to do that task more efficiently and safely.

The third level of mastery, method, is even more precise. A method will outline the precise kind of hammer to use for a specific task.  A method is an organized system of techniques that together reflect and promote a musical philosophy or a complete school of thought about a particular instrument. Mechanics tell you what works. Technique tells you how it works. A method tells you why it works.

Not everyone studying an instrument learns a specific method. Some teachers instruct every student from the beginning in accordance with a method. Other teachers are less strict adherents to a method or have even created their own.

There is no one best method. If there were, everyone would be using it. The benefit of studying a particular method is that it gives you the reason behind the techniques that you learn, and makes it easier to keep those techniques in the forefront of your mind.

But the advantage in learning a method is that you know how to find the answer to technical difficulties that you come across in your playing. The method has the answers built into it. “We do it this way because…” And having the resource of a method to turn to can give you the confidence to surmount some of the challenges involved in learning to play an instrument.

In summary:

Mechanics are the way something is done.
Technique is a proven way to do it well.
Method is why we do it that way.

Do you know what method you use?

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  • Lorna Ota

    Dear Anne,

    No one has ever broken down this theory for me re: Mechanics, Technique and Method. I think explaining all three separately is important to the new student in the very beginning and then reminded, thereafter, until it flows naturally. (Like learning to pick up a pencil and write for the first time. Then with practice, it becomes smooth, legible and beautiful.) Thank you for this “key”. Lorna


  • Anne

    You are most welcome, Lorna!


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