Monday, September 10, 2007

which comes first, the music or the technique?

A book about cello technique encounters one basic difficulty: We must somehow differentiate between the realm of music and the realm of technique. From the standpoint of the player's sensations we cannot divide cello playing into physical, emotional, and mental categories, with technique referring to the physical one. It is obvious that a deficient technique hinders musical expression, since a beautiful artistic concept is lost if it is not transformed into sound. Deficient technique corrupts the resulting sound, and even an imaginative player's concept of the result will be limited if he does not have at his disposal the means to render convincingly the smallest details of phrasing. In addition, physical strain, combined with constant disappointment, eventually creates a state of frustration that precludes an authoritative artistic rendering. Conversely, technical control of one's playing stimulates the search for ever new expressive shadings.

- Gerhard Mantel Cello Technique, Introduction p. xv
When I first read this, I found myself thinking, "Okay, it's easy enough to prove there's no music without technique. But there's certainly technique without music! Walk down any conservatory practice room hall at 9 am, that's what you'll hear."

I know my warm-up routine is pretty unmusical - or at least technique-focused. I'll deliberately avoid confronting any phrasing or expressive issue, preferring to focus on clean shifts, or making sure my bow isn't flopping around wildly. Often I'll crawl through a dozen scales before I even touch a piece of music.

The minimalist approach has some value in learning, but I'm not sure it's the complete answer. Mantel seems to at least suggest that there's no clear dividing line - and I wonder if, even when we're diligently practicing technique, not intending to say anything musical, a little voice is leaking out:
  • I'm incredibly bored right now.
  • How pure and focused can I make my practice today?
  • I really wish I were back in bed.
  • I'm completely absorbed in my instrument's sound.
  • What's the person in the practice room next door playing that sounds so good?
  • How much better in tune can I make this scale?
  • What will I have for lunch?
  • How many different bowings / articulations / fingerings / colors can I improvise to make this study more interesting?
Probably not all of those messages come across in so many words. But I do think you get an incredible sense of focus when you hear excellent musicians warming up. There's a care and precision, rather than a haphazard feeling of letting things fall where they will.

That's what I'm searching for in my practice lately, and I'm finding that this whole technique vs. music mindset often only holds me back. It creates a "no ice cream until you've finished your lima beans!" quality in my practice, in which punish myself with long, tedious drills before I can touch the music I really want to play. And often during those drills, my mind will just check out or shut off - nothing much interesting to think about there.

Treating my practice this way is sort of like trying to housebreak a dog by starving it - you might not find any more surprise deliveries around the house, but you'll definitely find a really sick dog. Why not take a more musical, creative approach to those technical studies? I can't afford to stop practicing scales and etudes, intonation studies and bowing exercises, but I can certainly afford to seek out more variety, color, and life in them.


Joe Lewis said...

I used to have a very regimented, consistent practice routine - back when I actually had time for this sort of thing. I'd get the lima beans portion of it out of the way as early as possible, like before 8 AM if at all possible, as if it were jogging or something. Then the rest of the day could be dedicated to practicing music.

The real music pieces can be treated like etudes too. You've worked on your bowing drills and your thumb position exercises. Now apply what you've learned to the piece you're working on - slow bowing drills, focusing on string crossings and shifting.

These days especially, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to practice the dry stuff. If I'm going to practice anything in my limited current practice schedule, it's going to be the good stuff. I'll try to get in a little Zimmerman bowing just because that has the most benefit for me personally, and then move on to the Misek or the Bach.

Emily said...

As someone who is writing a cello technique book AND as someone whose technique lagged behind my interpretive and musical abilities as a student, I think the best approach is to look at technique from a perspective of art. My belief is that there is an artist inside each person who chooses to play an instrument. What technique does is strip away the barriers between that artistic voice and what our hands do on the fingerboard. The purer the technique and the more automatic it is, the clearer that voice sounds. I see technical practice as a sort of devotion, a meditation. With each pass through, the less conscious the movements become, and the closer I get to zero interference between what my soul wants to express and the ability of my hands to do just that. Which is, to me, sometimes *more* compelling than a full-speed run through of the Dvorak. :)

Matt Heller said...

Thanks so much to both of you for the practicing wisdom! I love the idea of making our technical studies personal, dedicated, and even inspiring - a real extension of our art, not just scaffolding.

I look forward to reading more of your blog and your upcoming book, Emily!