Developing a Musical Technique

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal Op. 70″—and to continue talking about technique—I would like to share a personal experience that happened when I was learning this work. In so doing, I hope to illustrate the importance of thinking about musical goals in the development of our technique.

The upper line of the 7th variation, “Gently Rocking,” reminisces the Dowland song in continuous thirty-second notes, murmuring. It is juxtaposed against “out of key” open strings, which recall the structural leap of a fourth from the song. Both elements are presented pianissimo; in fact, the entire variation stays at soft levels, even sinking to ppp. Romanticism aside, I like to interpret it as Britten’s distorted, hazy recollection of the Dowland song (perhaps during a dream) set against the faraway bells of an Aldeburgh church.

The originality and effectiveness of this variation are remarkable. However, I believe the spell is lost if the continuous thirty-second notes of the melody are louder than a far and blurry pianissimo. When I was studying the variation I found that I could not play these rapid notes softly enough as I wanted them, especially for more than a few seconds. It was only after I envisioned the effect I wanted to convey in the variation that I made the effort to soften my index-middle repetitions at that fast speed; there simply was no point in playing the variation unless I could get the effect through. (Needless to say, being a guitarist, I had always aimed for more volume, not less.)

I hope this example illustrates that clear and uncompromising musical goals are the best teachers of technique. Although it is well-known that technique has to serve the music, in practice we tend to separate both realms (see my article “Performing Exercises” on Soundboard Vol. 39, No. 3). And although a proficient technique is something we should work towards, most of it is acquired subconsciously. Therefore, the analysis and understanding of each piece we encounter—picturing how it should sound before trying to play it—is crucial to develop a technique that is truly at the service of the music, instead of one that will condition how our interpretations sound.

Understanding what is molded into a piece, and its connotations, can bring us more excitement about playing it, which in turn drives us to master the techniques required to play it. Clear musical goals are the most alluring and useful developers of technique—more so than isolated exercise assignments or insistent requests by teachers.