My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A fresh new view of "technique"

I have been told ever since I was a little girl that I have great, natural technique.  But here's the odd thing - I have consistently avoided practicing technique all of my life.  As a matter of fact, and this is the first time I've publicly admitted this, when I was getting my undergrad degree in piano performance at the Eastman School of Music and studying with Nelita True, I stealthily defied her rules and got through my three or four years with her without ever passing her technique exam.  

Before you judge me, let me tell you, if you just knew what it was like, you'd completely understand!  Even the thought of this technique exam gave people nightmares!  Everything was on it - every scale in every direction, contrary motion, thirds, sixths, and octaves.  I think Mr. Hanon was involved...Moszkowski too.  And of course the metronome marking at which this all had to be delivered was practically off the metronome it was so fast.  The routine went on and on in one continuous, devilish whirlwind of pianistic madness.  I got knots in my stomach every time one of my studio mates performed it in studio class.  That's right.  Her students were expected to perform it in front of the entire studio.


Now don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily see anything bad about this requirement.  I just didn't have the nerve to do it myself and it didn't help that I had always been told that I had good technique naturally. "Why bother?" I asked myself.

Of course this stealthy move of mine so many years ago regularly comes back to haunt me.  It also makes me ponder how it is that I can have good technique even though I've never focused on it.  I'm not exactly sure of the answer but I do have some thoughts that were reignited after watching a short clip of Leon Fleisher that Graham Fitch had posted on his Facebook page the other day.  It is just over a minute long and really needs to be watched!

Here is my transcription of what he said...please forgive any inaccuracies.  I think it's so good it needs to be in writing too.
“I think technique is the ability to produce what you want.  The presupposition is that you want something.  So before going to the piano and practicing, training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear.  You have to hear, Schnabel used to say it all the time, you have to hear before you play.  If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident and then everything is built then on an accident.   So want something, hear it…go for and experiment, do outrageous things.  You know, when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury.  No metronome police, nothing.  You can try whatever you want. So experiment."
So many great thoughts in a very short amount of time.  Right now I want to focus on one little phrase - "training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it's in the brain, it's in the inner ear."  I'm not just trying to make pathetic excuses for my lack of bravery or my laziness by pointing this out - I truly believe what Fleisher is getting at here.  At least in my own experience, if I have the music clearly in my head, if I've determined exactly what I want from a particular passage, even a technically demanding one, there is very little I have to do at the piano to make it work right.  Yes, I need to make sure I have good fingerings, which can largely be figured out away from the piano but paired with a complete understanding of each and every note and rhythm, accompanied by an internalization of what the music means to me, that's all I need along with a handful of repetitions.  A handful!  Not 100 like I've heard some people use as a benchmark for thorough practice.  If that was my expectation, I would have quit music ages ago!  

Some people might respond to my last paragraph saying, "Yeah, but that's you!  You said it yourself, you've always had good technique!"

Right.  But maybe I've always had good technique because I have always had a very good inner ear that guides my hands - I don't let my body get in the way.  I have worked with so many students that don't appear to have a natural technique yet when I guide them through a process of audiating difficult passages in isolation and then encourage them to stop trying to physically control what they are doing at their instrument, they are amazed at how quickly all their problems are cleared up.  They feel like it should be harder to fix.  A few minutes of intense brain and ear work, which is usually a completely new experience for them, can make hours of repetitive practice and frustration obsolete.  My conclusion after witnessing this work countless times, is that our bodies are smarter than we often give them credit for.  Having a crisp, clear aural picture of what needs to happen is enough - the body can more often than not translate brilliantly what's in our heads and ears with far greater ease and accuracy.

With all this said, it makes me wonder if I should fess up to Nelita True and ask her if I can finally take her technique exam so that I can live the rest of my life without guilt.  If I do, maybe I'll test my hypothesis about mental learning and try preparing for it away from the piano. You never know, it may feel like a piece of cake that way!

Or maybe not.  Any votes on what I should do?  And Dr. True, feel free to chime in yourself!



  1. Here's the issue I have with this: you have to know how to evaluate the sound you are making -- and what is possible on your instrument -- before you can really know what you want. And then you have to learn what kind of technique produces what kind of sound, and if you don't have a lot of experience with your instrument, that is not always a simple matter. Sometimes (in fact most of the time!) it's hard to tell how you sound while you are playing; you may think you are achieving your intention when in fact you may not sound that way at all. So sometimes practicing technique as an end in itself is necessary -- it gives you the tools to be able to know what you want before you begin. I wouldn't categorically say it's a waste of time. (Scales really do help!)

    1. Harriet,
      I'm glad you made these comments and I agree with much of what you say even though I also agree with Fleisher's points. I don't think he would say it's pointless to practice scales and technique...I don't feel that way either because of the points you bring up - that one needs to learn what's possible at the instrument and to learn how different techniques cause one to make certain sounds, colors, textures, etc...My guess is that much of Fleisher's diatribe was directed at music students and musicians that have already made a lot of those connections and have paid their dues in technical practice but haven't learned how to trust all that and move on to relying on their ear more.

      For teachers of younger musicians and those that haven't had as much time with technical work, I would encourage them to be including aural work while working on technique so that the students don't merely treat technique as a physical, muscular activity. I think a combination of approaches might be ideal.

      Thanks for've given me more food for thought!

      All the best,

  2. I experienced an example "technique happens" last weekend: I subbed in a friend's band for their usual violist. I spent a lot of time listening to prior performances of the set list songs and making notes (since no written parts), but had only one 1-hour practice with the band, and no particular other practice besides reviewing my cues.

    After the show I was talking with the sound engineer (who is their regular live and recording person). He was commenting on how once I started playing he had to change his board settings from the ones he had used the night before with the regular violist (even though I was using her same amp and settings). He said her sound is usually "sharp" (not in pitch but "direct/hard") and he adds various effects to it. But my sound was more mellow and complex, plus I was doing various things with it that caused him to drop most of his FX because they were interfering with my sound, which was fine without it.

    I don't know what techniques I was unconsciously using (and the regular violist is a conservatory grad so no amateur), but apparently I had absorbed what sounds the pieces needed and replicated them without artificial aids!

    1. Betty,
      What an interesting experience and a great example of letting your ears do the guiding of your body. Our brains are such amazing organs!

      Thanks for sharing!


  3. I think there's a lot of good that comes from Fleisher's points, but at the same time I've always felt that major pianists are disconnected from how us "normal people" learn. I think there's an evolution in what "piano technique" is. It means different things to people at different levels of experience.

    We have to realize that although we are looking for a certain sound, we get that sound by physical movements. Sometimes I feel like music is over romanticized. Having an idea aurally for what the music will sound like is obviously good advice, but by ignoring the physical motions that produce those sounds I feel like we're doing a disservice to those without "natural technique".

    There is a clear divide between those that don't struggle with the physical motions of playing the piano, and those that do. I always struggled, and all of my teachers never did. It's very difficult for them to understand that although I know exactly how I want something to sound, I just don't have the motor skills required to produce that sound. When working with these teachers you can see it on their face "Why can't you do this? I could play this when I was 10!"

    That really is the problem. Young children learn exponentially faster than adults do. If a lot of the physical movements that are required to play the piano are learned at an early age, then learning a new section may be trivial. But if it's not learned early, then it may take twice as much work, if not more, as a teenager or adult. The problem is that all major pianists learned these movements as children and it came naturally. The method of learning for pianists that didn't have such an early learning experience should, and needs to be different, but all too often teachers don't know how to approach it.

    But I totally understand that a lot of times students don't think about how a passage should sound because they are focusing TOO much on those physical movements, which is obviously also a mistake.

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    2. Brian
      I'm so very glad you've chimed in as both a teacher yourself and as a pianist that has felt frustrated by teachers that just assume that everyone should be able to translate sound and though into movement. I have stayed away from teaching piano myself, especially beginning pianists, because I feel that a lot of my technique either came naturally, was taught well to me at a very early age, or more likely a combination of the two. I don't want to be one of those teachers that just shrugs when a student is having trouble and says, "I don't know what to say - just figure it out!"

      I am thankful there are teachers like you that are finding ways to pass on what you've learned through your own experiences.

      All the best,