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Technique: a love/hate relationship

February 15, 2020 (transferred from WordPress)

What greater way to spend Valentines Day than teaching a technique class?

There will be many future technique posts to come, but first, in the spirit of Valentines Day let me introduce you to my long and complicated relationship with viola as it pertains to technique. (The elusive, yet necessary thing that drives instrumentalists to a frenzy to obtain!!)

I started playing viola quite late and I decided to pursue music even later. It wasn’t until the beginning of my senior year of high school that I surprised my private teacher with a declaration that I was going to audition for music programs. The state of my technique at this point remains a giant mystery to this day. I distinctly remember needing to play from memory and with my eyes closed for the sole reason that I wouldn’t be intimidated by the sheet music or my instrument: aka I didn’t really know what was happening. I could do things without understanding it, and to this day I am amazed at the music I was able to play without the technical foundation.

Anyways, by the grace of God, I managed decently at auditions and for some miraculous reason my undergrad teacher accepted me into his studio. He was truly a saint! He saw my intense need for a technical foundation and guided me through a myriad of different techniques. Scales, arpeggios, double stops, shifting, bow strokes and a ridiculous amount of etudes! I was in technique heaven, and I found it absolutely liberating to understand how my instrument worked and have a system of getting around it. While my naturally discouraged personality would have prevent from being fully invested, this analytical system allowed me to be free from myself: everything was possible with a plan. At this point I was an eager and optimistic student, and would wake up early to practice for hours before morning classes.

Unfortunately, this growth spurt and optimism couldn’t be sustained. Over time I started to feel an obligation to practice, and what used to be liberating became a chore.  It was exhausting to try and constantly increase my technical ability, and felt like I had to jump through a million hoops before I could play a single note. My brain was trapped in the tangles of rules and prevented me from musical fulfillment.

During my masters degree, my next teacher presented me with an entirely different concept of playing. One of spontaneity, personality and emotion. Understanding my technical past, my new teacher focused on adding my personality, playing in free improvisatory styles and pushing the boundaries of sound. When I tried doing this I found that all the rules and boundaries I had known disappeared. It was both freeing and horrifying. While I wasn’t trapped in in obligation anymore, I also felt as if my whole world view on technique collapsed which brought on a state of confusion.

I want to emphasize how difficult this transition was. For when I became emotionally involved, the process and technique suddenly changed. Emotions manifest themselves physically, and therefore I experienced issues with different kinds of tension, different mental blocks and a different physical awareness. I became incredibly unhappy with my playing and felt that I couldn’t reconcile the technical side of my past with a new desire to be emotionally involved and connected with my sound. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to teach myself: because it’s the only solution. Who else can connect the mind/body/instrument in a healthy and satisfying way other than myself??

In the course of teaching myself technique, here’s what I’ve found necessary (really for any skill building..)

  • Let it evolve. We, as humans change over time, so naturally your playing will as well. Let it!

  • Aim for flexibility. The greatest players are not rigid, but incredibly flexible. They can control things in such a way that there are always options. Try to find as many variations and ways as possible.

  • Humility in all circumstances. The more we learn, the more we realize how much we do not know. Be humble and realize that your new discovery is not the end-all.

While there is no end to skill building and the mountain of technique, don’t be daunted or let it prevent it from playing the music you want or expressing yourself the way you want. Just enjoy the process of learning as much as possible. In all honesty, I will never ‘get there’ but I’ve certainly become a better instrumentalist, teacher, and mentor through it and hope to share some insights here in the future.

More specific technique posts to come!


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