This article is based on a previous publication written for the New Zealand Harp Society Journal, 1st October 2010, in which I was raising the question of instrumental technique, what should be done and issues to be avoided. I highlight here the main lines of the article and develop them in a more general context.
Imagine that you are at a concert. A talented and broadly gifted musician is performing on the stage. With reason, listening to this stunning musicality and irreproachable technique make you question your own skills, how do you play yourself. More personal and less academic, his way of playing is nevertheless more precise. Why is your technique, the one you have learned during so many years, suddenly swept aside so easily? What extra technique did he learn, something you have missed? We all have experienced this situation sometimes and more or less in a good way. What makes him so different?
If you practice regularly, you develop your skills. Because some people practice more than others, they also have more technique than others but, in all cases, we all perform with technique. Without it, gestures would be disorderly movements after each other. If you want to improve your skill in your instrumental practice, you need to repeat the gesture in exercises and tunes.
The music should advance the technique
The question is not really to know if you need more technique; rather which one do you need? To be honest, there is no “good” or “less good” technique. With the “right” one, you will always improve your playing whereas with the inappropriate or “wrong technique” will lead you surely to a dead end. Many of the technical skills I use nowadays come from my own compositions or arrangements. I never learned them from other musicians. Creating a technique is a matter of inventing as well as composing a new music. Why invent a new technique? To fulfil a musical need. This is particularly obvious in the way I play the left hand. This technique, I developed it to perform what I had in my ears.
To avoid confusion, let’s stop now on the difference between the words “technique” and “exercise”. Briefly, you practice exercises in order to improve your technique. The first is the foundation of the second. Again, there is no “good” or “bad” exercise but some of them are more appropriate than others, depending on what you are looking to improve. In that matter, you will always have to answer this question: what is your goal? Let’s take an example: Why practice scales? It’s a rigorous exercise, helping to develop ability and musical phrasing control. If your goal is to improve musicality, is there none more suitable?
I should now move on to the important question: how to get a stable technique, allowing us to perform what is imaginable? Do you remember our talented musician on stage from the beginning? Haven’t you felt, right from the start, what the level of the performance would be? However, the technique doesn’t start there. It’s unveiled before going on the stage through the general attitude. Performing in a concert is something quite stressful: the pulse rate becomes faster, breathing is more difficult, the hands sweat. Those feelings are characteristic of a lack of technique or “technique before the technique”. Playing an instrument reveals the maturity of body and mind and, if the technique is essential to control your fingers, it is also in how you breathe, how you are physically and mentally with your instrument. You were thinking that you were learning an instrument but, at the end, the instrument, it’s you.
The technique goes far beyond the instrumental practice and could be continuously improved by all daily life’s opportunities: the well-balanced swing of the walk, the precise gesture of the hand writing a letter, or doing simple daily tasks while controlling the motion and breath. All of those things have one point in common: the mastering of the body and mind.
To go further, I would recommend two excellent books which helped me a lot in the development of my own technique:
- Stalinslas Georges Paczynski, Rythme et geste, in which the author explains his work on percussion. This work is easily applicable to other instruments such as the Celtic harp.
- Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, Hara: The vital center of man, highlight of the works of the German psychotherapist on gesture and posture.