Technique and Music

March 17, 2007 at 12:28 AM · A comment on another thread about the relative technical difficulty of various warhorse concerti got me thinking about the way we like to separate music into technique and, well, music. Where does technique leave off and music making begin? If technique is what we need to execute a musical vision, then couldn't we say that everything we do when playing is technique? That every problem in execution or performance is in some way a technical problem? How does artistry differ from technical skill?

I looked up definitions of these two words because they have certain connotations for me: technique is dry, while artistry is creative; technique suggests skill, while artistry suggests a gift. Here's what I found:



a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation; "the art of conversation"; "it's quite an art" [syn: art]

(Modern Language Association (MLA):

"artistry." WordNet® 2.1. Princeton University. 16 Mar. 2007. .)


1617, "skilled in a particular art or subject," formed in Eng. from Gk. tekhnikos "of art," from tekhne "art, skill, craft" (see techno-). The sense narrowed to "having to do with the mechanical arts" (1727).

(Modern Language Association (MLA):

"technical." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 16 Mar. 2007. .)

What interests me, and what I'd like to open up for discussion, is the grey area between musical vision and manual skill. When you get to a level of great art (Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky concerti, for instance), can you separate the two at all? What does that bring? What kinds of musical challenges and difficulties fit into this grey area - is playing together a technical problem?

The more I think about it, the more the term intrigues and confuses me. I suppose that's part of what deconstruction is about. As musicians, we tend to divide strengths and weaknesses into these two categories, getting worked up over various shortcomings or failings on one side while forgetting the other. How might looking at the grey area between them influence how we approach learning music?

Replies (20)

March 17, 2007 at 07:47 AM · Milstein believed that there are two types of musician. The first type just plays music. Technique is a secondary consideration to this type of musician. The other type of musician uses technique as the starting point, and from this technical foundation makes music.

He believed that the first type was artistically superior to the second, yet the first type experienced technical difficulty more often than the latter. Where did I read this? I can't remember, sorry. Hopefully I have conveyed Milstein's meaning faithfully. If I have read my own interpretation into it, please someone put the record straight.

This may sound a pointless distinction, like the chicken and the egg, but if you think about it it does seem important, at least for those learning violin. Does technique make music, or does music make technique? (In other words, can you develop a great technique just from concentrating on the music?). Well, at the end of a great performance, I guess its all academic.

March 17, 2007 at 08:09 AM · Jon, it's not only Milstein who had that opinion, or an opinion as close to it as makes no never-mind. But I think the original question is far more thoughtful and thought-provoking. After all, what is a "musical" or "artistic" musician going to express if they haven't the technique to express it? Can someone with a working vocabulary of a dozen words write a great novel? Of course not.

And it then becomes somewhat silly and very shortsighted to discuss how the illiterate writer Feels the Book, or Play or whatever oh! so deeply. Whatever he or she feels may be genuine. But equally, it is imperceptible to anyone not gifted with telepathy. Anyone claiming that they can SENSE the intention radiating out from those paltry dozen words isn't sensing the author's intent, except accidentally. They're only superimposing their own images onto what is essentially a blank canvas, one that - in cases of dishonest and illiterate wanna-be Shakespeares - is only too happy to take credit, by grunting if necessary, for something they could never have envisioned.

Which is not to say that someone who sounds as though they've swallowed a dictionary is necessarily an Author. In fact, the term that leaps to mind here (perhaps unfortunately given what I just said about dictionary-phagia! damn, I did it again!) is "sine qua non". Sine qua non means "that without which there is not [or nothing]". It is, in other words, the PREREQUISITE. But a prerequisite is not the thing for which it is a prerequisite. For instance, English 101 is not English 102, but you can't take the latter without having taken the former. And, presumably, your literary education is incomplete without the latter.

Similarly, technique is the sine qua non of musicianship. No amount of technical training will imbue one with aesthetics or imagination or passion. But no amount of aesthetics or imagination or passion on the part of someone who doesn't know the first thing about playing the violin will allow their artistic nature to be expressed via, say, the Beethoven Concerto.

Or even something purely lyrical, like the Meditation from "Thais". Even their "Twinkle, Twinkle" will probably need rethinking.

March 17, 2007 at 10:07 AM · Megan, great topic!

There are some parts of technique that probably fall under the category of "violin tricks" and don't really contribute to one's expressiveness, and there are parts of musicianship that aren't directly related to instrumental technique. But you're right that there's a gray area between the purely musical and the purely technical...and personally, the older I get the more things seem to fall into that gray area!

For example, take spiccato. When we learn spiccato, we usually try to find the part of the bow where the stroke is easiest to execute cleanly at a given tempo. But in real music we don't always want the kind of sound that you get playing spiccato that way. Getting a different sound character...well, that's an artistic problem, isn't it? but executing the stroke that gets that sound is a technical challenge in its own right.

Regarding the distinction between having a concept of a musical idea and its execution. ...there's a sense in which that's valid -- choosing amongst the technical options one has is clearly an artistic choice. On the other hand, if one doesn't have the ability to execute an idea, then having the idea isn't so useful.

March 17, 2007 at 01:57 PM · This question is in the realm of the philosophy of aesthetics.

The overall point is that these are two different orders of business (two different "dimensions," if you will). It is not a question of one or the other. And they are both always present.

"Technique" is tangible, observable, behavioral. We can all see it, hear it, feel it, experience it as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic experience. We can agree on the fact of it. We know when we're at the tip or the frog of the bow; we know what a hand is wiggling and producing a sound we call "vibrato"; we can observe, feel, and hear a shift from the 1st to the 4th position with the second finger.

The "music," emotions, sentiments, meaning - what the music is expressing - that is not tangible. It is not observable. It is an inferred and (if you'll pardon the expression) phenomenological experience that we abstract from the physical technique. It is subjective and has no substance in physiology. And because it is not physically observable and is subjective, we can argue about it endlessly, whereas we can agree on the fact of technique.

In a sense, technique is the vehicle of music, and emotional or musical meaning is the invisible driver. Maybe that's not quite the right metaphor, but I think it's close.

You cannot avoid either technique or meaning. If your only focus is technique or the physical act of making "music" (or, if you prefer, "organized noise"), then the meaning of the music is in the technical execution and the sound it produces - that is what you are expressing.

And, conversely, it is impossible to express musical thought unless it is throught technique - the physical actions of making music - or the auditory experience of hearing the notes.


PS. On the other hand, Ambrose Bierce once defined philosophy as a "route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing."

March 17, 2007 at 02:49 PM · I'm with Bierce.

It occurs to me that one area of pure expression that has little to do with pure technique (correct me if I'm wrong) is rhythm and phrasing. Dynamics also skate around technique, although it's certainly possible to get a horrible sound playing loudly without proper technique.

March 17, 2007 at 07:27 PM · Phrasing and nuance are right arm bow techniques. People nowadays are so obsessed with left hand technique that they almost forget about their bow arms. I feel that in this day and age with the plethora of left hand technicians that the bow arm is a lost art. The bow is the vocal chord of the violin. Technique does not mean left hand it means the use of BOTH hands. Personally, I was taught not to think of technique and artistry as separate entities but as a hollistic "circle", the two act in synergy and the music cannot be projected without proper technique. I believe Miriam Fried (others too, I'm sure) preaches the same mentality towards her students.

Of course when you practice, you have to separate the performance from the nitty gritty.

March 17, 2007 at 05:02 PM · Very well put, Ouyang!

Along the same line, I think violin playing is similar to speaking a difficult foreign language. Both categories are equally necessary but not always equally important: (a) you need to have some interesting to say (ideas, thoughts, arguments) and (b) you need the right skills and techniques to say it properly, otherwise you are losing your audience very quickly. (b) is the means to the end(a).

The same applies to philosophy: philosophizing leads us from no where to nothing, if we do not have both insightes and proper techniques.

Good skills can get you a job. Great ideas supported by proper skills in a way define who we are. When it comes to the grey area, ask who is my audience at this moment and why am I playing for him/her can be most helpful.

ps. Poor ideas/taste supported by great techneqies is a frightening thing.

March 17, 2007 at 08:04 PM · How is it frightening? I just think wow look at the fingers fly, too bad it's boring, if it is.

I doubt the two are really separate things. Even if someone's artistry is boring to you, it isn't to the person playing. If your technique improves, your artistry or general abilities will follow along, even if someone else does find your particular artistry boring.

March 17, 2007 at 08:51 PM · That’s where the problem is: displaying great techniques may be boring to some and if so, it’s not frightening. The danger is that techniques are very seductive to us so much so that many of us mortals are quite willing to sacrifice the music for that. Now imagine yourself as a kid being taught to play Beethoven Sonatas with all the techniques required of your left and right hands without thinking through musically, without any historical understanding of the composer or the pieces you are working on, and you teach your students the same way generation after generation…

March 17, 2007 at 09:09 PM · The worst that can happen is it becomes the new asthetic. Finding some meaning in it would be unavoidable human nature. You must be a person who really likes things the way they are :)

March 17, 2007 at 09:24 PM · "You must be a person who really likes things the way they are :)" Wow, where did you get this impression from?

Personality issue aside, it is nothing new or old to assume music interpretation is not all subjective.

March 17, 2007 at 09:36 PM · I said it because you seemed to really want Beethoven performance to stay as is. Doesn't matter of course, just kidding.

March 17, 2007 at 09:52 PM · "I said it because you seemed to really want Beethoven performance to stay as is."

Don't mean to split hair but there's no way to avoid the question where do you think is the 'is'? Isn't this what all good musicians and music lovers try to find -- the finest interpretations of a piece of music written by the great dead composer?

March 17, 2007 at 09:58 PM · Sure, but change happens, and humans have great ability and propensity to find meaning, create new paradigms, whatever, in anything they're presented with.

March 17, 2007 at 10:45 PM · Interpretation has everything to do with changes, but change is meaningless in absence of stillness. To interpret a piece you have to have it (one and the same piece) to start with. Paradigm shift presupposes the existence of some old and new paradigms, which in and of themselves must be taken as concret/fixed at a particular point of time to ‘allow’ changes to happen.

Back to music of Beethoven, you can interpret his music anyway you want but at some point you may not be playing Beethoven. Superimposing meanings is what we do but this doesn’t make Jim Yixi. You are you and I am me. If you want to argue that the real Beethoven doesn't exist or he is John Lennon or what have you, I rest my case.

March 17, 2007 at 11:16 PM · My very simple answer comes as a quoet from the great master Jascha Heifetz: "That was nice, but I didn't feel anything!"

March 17, 2007 at 11:23 PM · Yixi , ok, I'll argue a real Beethoven doesn't exist and you can rest on your case :)

March 18, 2007 at 01:04 AM · Emil, yes, I agree. The illiterate writer who feels that book within him or herself oh so deeply (and secretly - because the world cannot know about it - yet): that person has an artistic nature. Chances are, if the person's feeling is strong enough, one day they will get their book out.

That person needs education and training, if they are one day to be an artist. How best for them to acquire technique, would you say? By following Milstein's first example, or the second, or a bit of both, or does it really not matter either way, or has someone already provided that answer and I missed it in my haste?

March 18, 2007 at 12:28 PM · Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful responses. I think we're all in agreement that technique is a means to an end: the 'how' of violin playing, while musical expression is the 'what'. You can't have one without the other.

I liked Kevin's point about right hand technique, and that's where the issue, from my point of view, starts to get more complicated. Take, for example, a student who plays a piece that sounds the same all the way through. What kind of a problem is this? Is it musical? Possibly, but the teacher that assumes the student doesn't know what he/she wants to say is acting too fast. Perhaps the student has a very good idea but is struggling with bow distribution - or perhaps he/she can't hear that the nuances aren't coming out. I think we can see how the problem might also be considered technical.

Sander's discussion of tangible and intangible aspects was also interesting to me. If technique is tangible, it is naturally much easier to teach. Yet as interpreters, what is most important to our art? (Good question - interpreter suggests that we are 'translating' something already created; performers suggests executing tasks in front of an audience.)

My boyfriend (a pianist) said something that I had a hard time with at the time: musical training is essentially a craft, not an art. I found that difficult to accept, because, as we know, our technical and mechanical concerns are there to serve the music. But what are teachers at a higher level there to teach? A well-respected violinist and teacher here in Germany once essentially told me his job wasn't to teach his students to be musical, nor to show them what to say, but to give them the skills to bring across what they wanted to say in the best possible way. Similarly, in his memoirs, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whom I consider a master in the creation of worlds) concentrates suprisingly on how he learned to structure and plot his stories, not on inspiration or content.

As professional musicians, our job is to make the audience experience the music. And Buri's classic example of playing a Handel sonata at an Alexander workshop bears mentioning here as well. He says the first time, he concentrated as hard as he could on making it special - expressing the music. Was good, but with a mild response. Then the teacher had him play it concentrating on primary control, and the effect was far more moving. This seems to imply that there's a time and place for technique and interpretation, but we don't always know when it is.

And how do you teach musical interpretation anyway? In a way, that German teacher was right - you don't. You send people into the world to get life experience and equip them with the skills to use it to their advantage. You expose people to beautiful things from all corners of the world and encourage them to draw connections between them. You ask questions and don't necessarily expect answers. This is definitely part of musical education, but expecting that to come from the violin teacher alone is asking too much.

March 19, 2007 at 09:50 AM · To me, music is art, not craft. Like all art, a lot of craft comes into it....and then something beyond that.

A lot of pragmatists and dyed-in-the-wool musos would probably say 'poppycock!' to me but too bad. I think they've gotten a bit jaded, or missed the point, or need to get their faith back or something. I don't hold it against them. Life can be wearisome sometimes.

'Craft' is like a nice hand-made leather belt you might enjoy wearing, or something similar.

'Art' is like love, and death, and suffering, and joy, and hope.

Music is an art.

There endeth the lesson.

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