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Break Through: What to When Your Technique Is Holding You Back

Is your technique keeping you from playing the music you love?

No matter what your playing level is or how many years you’ve been playing, your technique may be holding you back.

Your technique is the foundation for everything that you play. It is the essence of your tone, speed, fluency and musicality. If your technique isn’t ready to handle that piece of music on your music stand, you can practice the notes until your fingers fall off and still not be able to play the music the way you want.

I expect that you know that already. You probably practice your scales and arpeggios, perhaps even exercises and etudes, regularly as part of your practice. At least, I hope you do. But you may have discovered that you still aren’t moving your technique to the level you want.

Are You Ready?

Not sure if you need a technique break through? See if any of these statements sound familiar.

  1. You can get your pieces to ¾ tempo but not up to speed, even though the piece doesn’t seem that hard.
  2. You need to write in almost all of the fingering for the pieces you play, because if you don’t, your fingers don’t know what to do.
  3. You’re about ready to give up on playing anything fast because your fingers just won’t do it.
  4. You avoid any piece that has flowing scales or arpeggios because you know you won’t be able to play it well.

If any of these statements ring true for you, you need a technique break through now. I suggest that you consider making some changes to your usual technique practice, and I have some ideas for you to consider.

Three Break Through Strategies

If you have decided you need a technique break through, you have to be prepared to shake your routine up a little. The “same-old, same-old” just won’t move the needle. If you want to make get to that break through quickly, consider employing one or all of the strategiesbelow.

Strategy 1: Change up your warm-up.

A regular warm-up routine is comforting. It can help clear your mind and bring your attention to your practice. It limbers up your fingers gently.

But it doesn’t push your technique.

After you do your warm-up, add some more demanding technical drills. Include a rotation of exercises, etudes, scales and arpeggios to put your fingers through all  their paces. You don’t need to do all of those each day, but rotate them as you go through your week.

I use a rotation in my own practice. I use Salzedo’sConditioning Exercises, Bach/Grandjany Etudes and Salzedo’sDaily Dozen regularly, plus I throw in a few others from time to time. I find that using a variety of drills improves my technique much more than just repeating the same one over and over.

Strategy 2: Put the Pedal to the Metal

If you want to play fast, you need to practice playing fast, and your technical practice is the perfect time to do it.

I recommend three different tempo plans for your technique work, each with its particular focus.

I do slow, careful work to focus on my mechanics. Is every finger doing what it should? Is my hand position correct? Are my fingers closing properly?

Slow work is also the perfect time to focus on your tone, to ensure that it is full, round and resonant. Making sure you are relaxed as you play is key here.

At a medium tempo, you can concentrate on developing your flexibility. Make sure that your fingers are playing evenly, without tripping over each other. Think about the drills in more musical terms, working to create beautiful phrases and a greater dynamic range.

Then, practice fast. Not just faster. I mean, fast.  Your music will require you to have the facility and dexterity to fly over the strings, staying relaxed and relying on your fingers to do your bidding. This is the time to push the tempo to the point that you begin to fall off the strings. It’s only by trying to go that fast that your fingers will develop any confidence at a more reasonable tempo.

As you do this, be absolutely sure that you stay relaxed. Playing softer as you play faster can help. Also, don’t worry about how clumsy you feel or how many wrong notes you play. This is the time to make those mistakes, so you can develop the speed you want in your “real” music.

Strategy 3: Patterns, Patterns and More Patterns

The most significant contribution you can make to your technique is to drill your fingers on the patterns that occur regularly in your music. There are countless books with exercises based on those patterns.Salzedo’sConditioning Exercises is one example.

If you find yourself needing to write in lots of fingering before you can learn a piece, it may be because your fingers don’t have the experience to automatically play a pattern when it shows up. When your fingers have done a lot of training in these idiomatic patterns, you can play them without thinking which finger to use; it is simply automatic.

This isn’t only a technique break through - it’s a time saver!

Gain Leverage

The more you push your technique, the easier everything else becomes. Your technique is the lever for your playing. If you remember yourelementary physics, you know that the longer lever you use, the less effort is required to move the object at the other end.

Similarly, the longer and stronger your technique “lever,” the less effort it will be for you to learn a new piece, to get it up to tempo and to make it flow.

The leverage strategy is simply this: stretch yourself technically. Start by including more technique work in your practice. Then add variety and speed to your drills.

Then all you have to do is watch the break through happen.

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