Playing to serve the music

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Leah Kruszewski
Playing to serve the music

Lessonface Presents hosted a conversation with Yonit Spiegelman a couple months ago.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, it’s fun and interesting and well worth your time!

Around 18:30, Yonit talks about a favorite album that inspired her during a difficult time.  Music exists to connect us, she says, and this particular album helped her feel that she wasn’t alone in the difficulties she was experiencing.  Connections like this are why we enjoy not only happy, upbeat music, but music that conveys sadness and pain too. Unpleasant feelings are much more bearable when you know that others can relate.  The conversation later turns to the subject of technique and virtuosity, the role that our technical abilities play in expression, and the idea of playing to serve the music.

We hear the term ‘technique’ tossed around all the time in music.  It often calls to mind scales and drills at impressive speeds, but that doesn't have to be the case. Our technique determines the sound quality, our ability to execute rhythms, articulations, dynamics, tonal color, and really any interpretive device.  Technique work can be anything that focuses on how you physically produce the sound. In classical guitar, for example, we need to produce a strong, round, consistent tone from the instrument. Developing this can mean simply playing the same note repeatedly, making slight changes to the angle of attack to get exactly the sound you want.  There’s nothing virtuosic-sounding about this exercise, but our musical voice depends on it.

Players (students and professionals alike) have diverse approaches to technique.  Some players hate scales and exercises. They prefer to develop their technique through careful attention to their sound as they learn and develop repertoire.  Other players love being able to push the limits of their playing and expand their capabilities. They’re perfectly content dedicating a large portion of their practice time to scales and exercises, and can tell you the tempo at which they’re capable of playing certain rhythms.  

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  I definitely understand the appeal of the first approach, but carefully-designed exercises are often much more efficient for developing certain techniques than any repertoire excerpt could be.  Likewise, if you have the personality type that enjoys goal-setting and testing their physical limits, use it to your advantage! But remember that no one really cares how fast you can play scales if you don’t know how to use that velocity to express yourself.  Speed in music is a tool and a means to an end, not the purpose of playing. Regardless of your preferred approach, technique is important for everyone. You can be a musical and creative genius, but if you can’t convert your ideas into sound waves, your genius will stay trapped inside.   

Yonit emphasizes in her conversation that there are many different kinds of musicians and there isn’t a ‘right’ way to be.  She appreciates and praises virtuosic bass players who amaze listeners with their abilities and invent exciting, moving bass lines to fit any context.  But she prefers to approach each song as having a purpose, and to play to serve the music. If a particular song seems to ask for a simple, slow bass line, that’s what she will be most content playing.   

How do you approach technique?  How much of your practice time do you devote to scales and other exercises?  What sorts of exercises have helped your playing the most? If you tend to avoid exercises and drills, how have you developed your sound?  How do you solve challenges in execution that inevitably arise?

What are your favorite players like?  Are you inspired by world-class virtuosos, and do they motivate you to practice and improve?  Or are the players who inspire you most not necessarily the fastest or most technical? Perhaps you simply like the ideas they come up with and their manner of expressing themselves on their instrument?  

Has your relationship with technique evolved as you’ve grown as a musician?  Sometimes young dedicated musicians over-focus on virtuosic abilities and become more expressive as they grow and mature.  Other young students have trouble with the discipline of focused technical work, but at some point realize that shortcoming is holding hold them back expressively and change their approach.  Have you gone through different phases of development? Is there anything you wish you’d known or done when you were starting out?

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