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Is Learning “Technique” Really Worth It?

One of the most terrifying terms to many students of the piano is “technique.” It brings to mind many hours of boring, repetitious exercises that seem to have no relevance to “real” music and seem to be more like musical torture than pleasurable enjoyment. Indeed, many students quit lessons because of having to learn technical skills. Let's explore what “technique” is.

The explanation of technique usually begins with simple finger exercises, for example, pentascales and other five-finger patterns. These occur (in elementary method books) as part of the development of hand and finger shapes. Another explanation of technique often cites scales and chords, which is true in that so much of the intermediate and advanced literature involves those two items. Mastery of the instrument would be impossible without conquering scales (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor) and chords (primary triads, triad inversions, chords using octaves) in all keys. The focus here is mostly on making the fingers play the correct notes at the correct time.

While these ideas are critical, a more important element is the training and disciplining of the mind and ear. The fingers do not think nor do they direct anything; their purpose is to react to the directions given to them. It is the MIND which sends the signals to the body and controls the movements of the fingers, while the EAR determines whether the resultant sound matches the desired sound.

What does this mean in actual practice? When playing exercises by Hanon, for example, take the “Hanon Challenge.” Make it a goal to make the hands play exactly together, with a consistent sound on every note, in a consistent and steady rhythm with a metronome. You must listen carefully to determine if you are really doing it. Can you play these exercises perfectly? Rarely in the performance of literature do we achieve “perfection” in any sense, but it IS possible in these types of exercises; we must challenge ourselves and push our minds beyond our assumed limitations. It takes concentration, determination and guts to do this. Be bold! Take the challenge!

Once you have achieved (at least closely) this type of technical accuracy in exercises, add further challenges by changing the articulation or adding musical/dynamic shaping. For example, the first Hanon exercise can be played in dozens of ways. With articulations, one can play it: legato; staccato; one hand legato and one hand staccato; slurred patterns such as the first note legato to the second followed by two staccato notes. With rhythm, one can use dotted-rhythms: long-short-long-short; short-long-short-long; long-long-short-short; etc. With dynamics, one can play each measure with a crescendo/decrescendo; alternate dynamics, with one measure piano and the next forte; make a very long crescendo through the ascent and a very long decrescendo through the descent; etc. For every note, it is critical that you listen carefully to the accuracy, timing and quality of sound. Scales and other skills can be treated in similar ways.

The imaginative pianist will find new approaches to create freshness in practicing technique, varying the exercises and technical skills to avoid boredom and mindless repetition. The benefits to one's mental focus and concentration is enormous, promoting better coordination and listening. Technique, thus, is the entire mental and physical apparatus working seemlessly, effortlessly and fluidly to create meaningful and expressive performances. Is learning “technique” really worth it? Absolutely! You must decide to make your practicing and rehearsing more interesting and refreshing. Do not settle for anything less than your best efforts -- and you will become a better pianist and musician.

©2011 Scott Carrell

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