The Essence of Instrumental Technique

I am about a week late posting this month, but made up for it by posting some free exercises and practice tools on my website. This month I wanted to discuss how I approach technique, along with an overview of lots of different practice strategies. Please feel free to leave comments or contact me directly with any additional input. If it is especially awesome I would be happy to add it to the bottom of my post.

Most instrumentalists spend inordinate amounts of time refining their technique. We all want to be able to play higher, faster, louder, lower, slower, and softer than everyone else on the planet. The ultimate goal of technique is consistency, the ability to reproduce a desired musical result at will. Instrumentalists develop consistency via various evenness exercises.

Evenness exercises emphasize keeping some musical parameter constant while varying another. For instance, many of us learn all of our major and minor scales and incorporate them into technical practice. We are taught to try to maintain a consistent tone quality and articulation/note shape as we play scales. They give us a basis for learning various runs and other rapid passages.

Brass players are taught “lip slurs” in which we attempt to vary the pitch while maintaining a consistent tone quality. Some of us do a lot of mouthpiece buzzing, to maintain a consistent buzz while producing a melodic line. I personally am a big advocate for pitch consistency exercises, trying to maintain a steady pitch through various articulations and dynamic fluctuations. Pianists and string players have their own set of evenness exercises, attempting to even out awkward fingerings, shifts and bow techniques.

Almost every parameter of an instrumentalist’s playing can be refined by some sort of evenness exercise. The exercises themselves are almost meaningless if improperly applied. Many younger and amateur players make the mistake of aimlessly playing through these exercises, assuming that their technique will improve by mere repetition.

As we continue to refine our technique we become increasingly aware of how the body and our instrument works physically so that we can become more efficient. Efficiency enables us to play a particular exercise with the least amount of physical effort. We must listen carefully and continually make subtle adjustments to streamline our mechanics. We use our eyes and ears to match our playing with what we hear in our minds. For this reason, our conceptualization and idealization of sound is ultimately the foundation of technical improvement.

In many instances our senses actually serve to mislead us. Metronomes, tuners, drones, mirrors, audio/video recording devices and decibel meters each help to introduce objectivity into the process. However, simply using these devices will probably not improve any aspects of playing very much. It is important to use each one for very specific reasons.

I like to practice with metronomes as much as I can. I also like to practice without them as much as I can. There are advantages to both. When I use them, I believe in setting them to moderate tempi (between about 50bpm and 150bpm). If a passage states quarter note equals 200bpm, I will set the metronome to half note equals 100bpm. If it is quarter note equals 40bpm, I set it to eighth note equals 80bpm. I do this because abnormally fast and slow tempi are not easily perceivable by the human auditory system. We will tend to keep the steadiest tempi at more moderate speeds. When I eventually turn the metronome off, I want to have a strong sense of beat groups in that range.

Many people immediately lose their sense of steady time as soon as they turn off the metronome, often rendering many hours of practice completely useless. Many people also think they are playing right with the metronome when they practice but really are not. Sometimes using an audio recording device in combination with a metronome on can help to reveal this. If possible I will run the metronome through an audio amplification system to make it easier to hear while playing/recording.

Most players instinctively pull out a tuner to correct faulty intonation. After all, a tuner can very simply and accurately (if you have a good one) measure pitch. The problem is that very few of us have a pitch memory accurate within five cents. A note will often sound terrible even if it is only five cents out of tune! Besides, tuning everything to equal temperament is not usually desirable in ensembles without keyboard instruments. Major triads sound the best when the third is about 14 cents flat (and 14 cents sharp for the thirds of minor triads). Every harmonic interval has sweet spot that is somewhat out of tune with where a tuner will indicate precise intonation.

Therefore, practicing with drones (sustained and extremely steady pitches) is often more effective. By tuning various intervals against drones of different pitches we can get a sense for the range of variation of just intonation compared to equal temperament. Most importantly, we learn to adjust pitch according to our ears rather than our eyes.

Many teachers advocate practicing with drones. However, in my experience many players think they are playing in tune with the drone and actually are not. I have found it useful to use a tuner in combination with the drone, particularly if that tuner has a contact microphone attached that will only pick up the sound of the instrument and not the drone. It is important to discover where perfect intonation of an interval is and then try to remember how that both sounds and feels. Sometimes an audio recording used in combination can further illuminate matters.

Over time almost anyone can develop ears which are very sensitive to pitch. It’s just a matter of knowing what to listen for. It’s more complicated than just trying to “eliminate beats,” especially when tuning intervals other than unisons.

I have found mirrors and video recording devices to be some of the most effective ways to observe technique. As a brass player, it is important to be able to watch the embouchure in live time and know what that weird feeling you get on that one note actually looks like. It’s often immediately obvious how to fix it. As a pianist, video recording equipment can help me see my hands from an entirely different angle. It’s amazing how much you can see when just looking at yourself from a slightly different angle. The old adage that it doesn’t make what you look like when you play is misleading. More times than not seeing yourself playing can lead you to solutions to problems you never could have imagined any other way.

Very few musicians I have ever met use decibel meters on a regular basis. I came across them from my physics/science background. However, I find them to be invaluable at times. Dynamics are difficult to measure with our ears alone. We often think we are playing louder/softer than we actually are. A decibel meter shows us just how much of a crescendo we are making. It helps us to see that we actually started playing a lot quieter sooner than we wanted to. We immediately see all the notes we’re accidentally accenting. There are many free smartphone/computer apps which function well as decibel meters.

Technical practice is really a science experiment. Each day in the practice is like spending time in a laboratory. We mix together various ideas and approaches to solving the physical limitations of our playing. In the end however, it’s only a small part of what music making is all about. Many great artists have survived highly successful careers with highly inefficient technique. Consequently, a master technician with no concept of how to shape a musical phrase will usually bore just about every audience.

Lastly, many players are reluctant to attempt repertoire with difficult passages in front of live audiences. I think this is wrong-headed advice on many levels. More than anything else, confidence is necessary to pull-off something extremely difficult under a lot of pressure. Most of us can play far more in the practice room than we might ever dare to put in public. This is simply due to fear. It’s understandable. I’m not advocating that everyone run out and attempt repertoire they aren’t ready to play for a high pressure performance. However, if it’s something you can usually manage in the privacy of the practice room you are probably ready to play it under pressure. Obviously if there’s a lot riding on an audition, maybe it’s not worth the risk. That being said, the more you are willing to risk in a performance the more impressive it will be when you pull it off.

To summarize, prepare yourself in every way imaginable in the practice room and then walk out on stage and just go for it. Give yourself permission to fail miserably, because there’s always that chance that you won’t!

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