Technique is a Delivery System for Meaning

The title of this blog post is taken from an expression that I learned from director Jon Jory. A recent Instagram post of Daniel Barenboim inspired some lively discussion on the role of technique in artistry. It’s very common today to see many discussion boards replete with information on technique and technical maneuvers. Barenboim’s quote is a reminder not to move too much in the direction of technique, lest we lose the intrinsic communicative power and emotional strength of what singing truly accomplishes.

To that end, I’m sharing a wonderful short essay from Richard Floyd from his book The Artistry of Teaching and Making Music:

For horn player Phillip Farkas, music should be ninety percent art and ten percent craft.

Horn virtuoso Philip Farkas proclaimed that music should be 90 percent art and 10 percent craft. He lived and performed in a rarefied environment of professional musicians where this philosophy could be sustained at an extremely sophisticated level. However, this highly desirable balance of art versus craft should be a component of performance expectations at every level, from the youngest to the most refined student ensembles.

Unfortunately, this essential component of what we do is often lacking in our school music rehearsal rooms. As music educators, we seem to be committed to “pushing the technical envelope.” As a result, the pursuit of ever-ascending technical challenges and an intense focus on the mastery of craft leaves little time to explore the expressive qualities of the music we share with our students. We want our students to be challenged technically as they advance and refine their skill sets. This is a worthy expectation and commendable objective.

But is that enough? I think not. We should be equally dedicated to the goal of affording our students the opportunity to experience the expressive qualities of the music we are performing in a deeply meaningful way. Unfortunately, the danger exists that the dual goals of elevating technical prowess and exploring expressive music making can be mutually exclusive. If students are devoting most – if not all – of their physical and mental prowess to technical mastery, and every piece is selected to advance those objectives, there is little likelihood that they will be able to experience, much less appreciate or explore, the musical qualities of what they are rehearsing. As a result, their music involvement becomes an endless succession of technical conquests.

There is a simple and obvious solution. Balance repertoire selection by introducing some works that are easily accessible in terms of technical content yet are deeply expressive. These kinds of compositions, while perhaps not as abundant as one would like, do exist at every performance level, from easy to advanced. The intent being that an ensemble that is technically competent with Grade IV music should routinely explore the musical depth of an expressive Grade II or Grade III compositions. The goal would be to select music that requires little or no investment in technique, rhythm, or range challenges, or in other words, the craft of music making. The students would then be free to explore the expressive qualities of the music and experience the beautiful art of interpretation.

This kind of music making also affords students the opportunity to listen for the expressive qualities of the music they are making. There is less need for them to focus their intellectual prowess on technical mastery. They are liberated from the excessive demands of technical mastery, and can use their ears to understand, appreciate, and refine the artistic qualities of their efforts.

Thus, repertoire – at least some of it – should be selected to be expressive rather than impressive. Again, never forget that it is likely we chose to join our great profession because of the way music made us feel. We didn’t choose music as a career because we finally played the chromatic scale at quarter note equals MM=144 or because we discovered how to count dotted rhythms. We embraced music because of those moments when music touched our souls or we otherwise felt the undeniable power of music. It is essential that we provide those same kinds of experiences for our students. It is unlikely they will occur if the conquest of notes and rhythms remains constant, overshadowing priority.

Richard Floyd, The Artistry of Teaching and Making Music, Gia Publications, 2015.

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