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MUS654 Session 6: Technical issues

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Understanding processes, embedding good habits, and navigating challenges

Technical issues in playing are a part of every musician’s life – whether you are a performer or a teacher. The difference between the two is that the teachers are expected to be able to apprehend and articulate the processes to their students. With today’s topic of technical issues I don’t mean the basics of playing, but the things that, if not approached carefully, could be hurdles that quickly become stumbling blocks. Observing, discussing, and sorting technique requires a sense of understanding the intertwined hierarchy of processes.

  • Task: Have a read… The process of working through technicalities is described quite well in this two-page extract about musicians’ practice in Perfection, The Ultimate Goal. Even though this is written from the perspective of a trombone player, it explains the situation that many musicians experience. 

Technical issues can seem to be found all over the place, but ultimately they stem from fundamental elements within the repertoire of our musical vocabulary.

  • the central pillars of music: pitch, the quality and articulation of sound, rhythm, and aspects of texture
  • navigating physical coordination and the interaction of the player and the instrument
  • mental factors where we as musicians get in our own way
    • Task: Read Chapter 10 of Power Performance for Singers, Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas discuss practicalities of how musicians can become distracted and the impact on performance. Although this book is 15 years old, it gives practical advice and it is applicable across all instruments.

There are other good references… here’s a book by Ivan Galamian on The Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. What other references can you find…?

Embedding good habits

‘Technical’ issues might be seen as a polite or politically correct way of saying ‘problems’. Technical issues can become problems, especially with very poorly planned teaching. Often unprepared teaching is reactionary; a student turns up to a lesson and after playing something the teacher diagnoses a problem and tells the student what is wrong and possibly how to fix it. There is little sense in allowing people to be ignorant so they do things wrong, only to allow the teacher to undo these errors in order to correct them. So the idea of embedding good habits is not in fact some delicate way of correction or pointing out what goes wrong, but it is about identifying the challenges before the student arrives at them and working to develop the skills they need successfully navigate and traverse the situation.

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Across instruments there are two things that make an incredible difference to the musician’s apprehension of what is going on both with and around them musically:

Listen and sing.

Sing everything.

 

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As a student I remember my teacher making me sing everything. It wasn’t about having a particularly trained voice, but it was about expression without the barriers of instrumental technique. Perhaps for singers there is a need for physical motion, or some other representation as you already sing. Singing the music allows a direct expression of shapes and a direct communication of pitch. That anticipatory stage of listening means that the musician is not reacting to their own sounds. If someone does not have an aural vision of what they want to achieve before they do it, then they are reliant on the physical sounds and if that is not what they meant, then there is nothing but to react and change it. This brings to mind slurping intonation and nervous performances where students miss notes and have to correct… It is something commonly called the ‘inner ear’.

There is a fantastic free book resource for developing that sense of internal hearing. It was developed as an open resource by a physicist and for some reason he made this comprehensive book. Everything in it is either public domain or shared under the creative commons license. I have used it with all variety of students for years, and have even been known to have a sneaky go at singing through many of the pages myself. The book is on this link:

Eyes and Ears: An anthology of sight singing melodies by Ben Crowell

Anticipatory and planned practice as opposed to reactionary playing. It’s all about fine tuning the mind’s ear to listen… and it’s amazing what detail and precision can be achieved.

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  • Task: Choose a piece of music and find a tricky passage. Sing it. Then sing it again, this time with an awareness of the musical challenges. Find a melody from the Eyes and Ears book that addresses that issue and sing it through. Think it through. Sing it through. Now go back to your own music and sing it again. After all of that, go back and play (sing if you are a vocalist!) it on your own instrument. How is it? How is your mind with the passage? Consider how you could apply that process to other musical settings.

Back to specific technical issues…

Understanding

Technical issues do have an element of diagnosing and piecing together the picture.

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Still, the need to rebuild the house from the foundation.

Always going back

Sometimes we patch the symptoms without addressing the fundamental.

Ask which will last?

Where is it?

What is it?

What is getting in the say?

Can you tell? Or are you able to notice the symptoms?

Map it out.

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Poetic questions… all musicians do come up against problems that do need correcting. This happens even with the very best and careful practice embedded into learning. It happens simply because we are human. there are elements of technical learning that cannot be anticipated and are going to be different for each individual.

There also is a sense of taking a concept as far as it will go. For example, after a student has worked on a bit of repertoire and performed it, they have reached (hopefully) a high point. Following a high point, in order to build higher, there needs to be a stronger foundation. That was what my teacher Hans Jensen told me when he took me back to open strings on the cello after I played a concerto with piano for my first recital at university. I remember not understanding, and being frustrated, and he likened the analogy to architecture. Really, if you want to build higher, the base needs to be able to support the structure.

Sometimes technical work is not to fix  but to grow.

Whatever the reason, be careful to be aware of the nature of the pieces and how they fit together, lest a few get left out, and then really the whole picture remains slightly broken.

Use these concepts in practice: your practice, not just in teaching. Continue to label the pieces of the puzzle, and carefully stick them together.

  • Task: Audit your puzzle work and plan for rebuilding. Take stock of your learning and of when you have knowingly stripped back the technical layers in order to build them up again. If this is something you have not yet done, plan for it. Write down what technical aspect of your music making you are planning to strengthen and how you will do this. Give it a go over the next week and write about how it feels, sounds, and fits into your routine of practicing and performing.

 

Navigating difficulties

OK. With knowledge, forethought, great ears, a keen sense of vision, we should be equipped to avoid the worst of the classic repair-work  sort of practice. Looking at the discipline within various instrumental specialisms we can see that both excellent and slightly lacking practice exist. The big themes to take from this section are 1. question what ‘everybody’ traditionally does and 2. musicians can learn a lot from each other – regardless of discipline.

What does everybody do? Generally people do what they are told, whether that is by a teacher or what comes next in a book. Did your teacher explain the whys of technique? Thankfully mine did! Perhaps yours did too…

Always question and think through what you are doing, and what you are teaching, as your student may not yet be thinking ahead for themselves.

  • WHY do we do it that way?
  • WHY do some string players start learning fingers with 1st finger instead of using all the fingers?
  • WHY avoid ‘high’ notes? Why are they called high notes?
  • WHY do things in the order they are found in the book?

 

Pianist Thomas Duchan, spoke to me about how he teaches scales. He begins with C Major, and explains the relationships of notes. Then he moves everything up a semitone (half-step) to C#, and goes back to C, and he then moves everything down a semitone to Cb. This process takes a few weeks and maybe months depending on the age of the student, but then because they understand how scales are made, they can play all of the keys even as beginners.

This has to do with investing in the students in a way that can help them navigate technicalities later on. Perhaps there are other ways too, but this is one example of how, with forethought, a teacher can anticipate and avoid what might otherwise be needlessly confusing or off-putting for students.

How can you do this with your instrument? Whether it is rhythm work, reading, physical relaxation, coordination skills? There are any number of possibilities.

  • Task: Name three. Choose three technical challenges that you can plan for and anticipate so that you and your students have a better grasp on that specific thing when you encounter it in a musical situation. As always, write about it! Tag it #MUS654 and comment on other people’s ideas. You may find something that you can borrow directly or adapt for your own use.

Lastly…

Practically speaking, remember that we are all human, and when dealing with technical minutiae, it often takes rehearsing and repeating and rehearsing and careful focus and attention, it can be so draining. So you may feel like this:

and when that happens it is time to take a break, have a walk, get a drink of water. Give yourself time and let it sink in!

  • If you are posting on your own blog, please tweet a link and I will find it as long as it has the hashtag #MUS654

Happy exploring!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary Edmondson #

    This is very interesting-stimulating-weekly-high quality.
    Thanks.

    Will keep at it.

    October 16, 2014
    • Laura #

      Thank you for the feedback Mary! I am glad you are enjoying it and getting something out of the sessions. Nice to have you on board!

      October 16, 2014
  2. Thoughts on the technical issues of RSI and other muscular injuries musicians get: https://victoriaj94.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/musicians-medicine/

    October 15, 2015
    • Wendy #

      Hi Victoria, your post reminds me of the Alexander Technique. http://www.alexandertechnique.com/ A wonderful resource and way of thinking about our posture and what happens to our physicality when we play and perform music.

      October 21, 2016
  3. Andrew Wooder #

    Hey Laura 🙂 with the whole aim for perfection thing the trombone player goes on about within their article, I couldn’t disagree more with the fact that being a perfectionist myself, I’ve realised that aiming for perfection is just pointless, and a means of endless disappointment and frustration. I say this because when you’re a perfectionist there is always this absolutely “perfect” end goal in your head, for how you want something like a song/piece to be like.

    The problem is, that this goal is always something that is too far to reach and when you progress and progress, and get said thing to a great level. The only thing that will keep happening is that the points you need to improve upon will get smaller and smaller yes, but you’ll always be trying to play it better and better. But never be able to achieve this utterly “perfect” version, because in your head this is a version with no distractions, no mistakes, played absolutely “perfectly”, because it is the most purest form of what you want to hear, but that isn’t how reality works…there’s always going to be that live situation and recording etc, where you think to yourself, DAM if I’d done this it could have been so much better etc.

    Sorry for the rambling ahah, but this leads me to a quote I saw on a gym wall, “Don’t aim for perfection… aim for progress” which is something I can absolutely agree with… also another I saw, which definitely relates to practice, “The pain you receive today, will be your strength tomorrow” which I think is just perfect.

    October 19, 2015
    • Laura #

      fantastically well put Andrew! What you have articulated is exactly the sort of sentiment that will keep your students going in a healthy way and recognising that progress is so important. Love the gym sentiment too – as long as we take it metaphorically – we don’t want real pain! Strength can come from persistence and recognising how we move forward and grow. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts. 🙂

      October 19, 2015

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