Building Technique

“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
–David Mamet, author (The Musician’s Way, p. 94)

When we acquire robust technical skills, barriers to musical expression drop away.

We internally ‘hear’ musical gestures, and then we make those gestures ring out with a naturalness that seems effortless.

Yet despite the spiritual nature of technical mastery, I find that aspiring musicians often confuse ‘technique’ with ‘mechanics,’ and, as a result, they don’t develop the technical command that they need.

Technique Defined
Although technique incorporates mechanical skills – such as how we’d move a limb, manage airflow, or control a reed – those mechanical aspects must be developed to serve musical goals.  Otherwise, from an artistic perspective, they’d be useless.

As an illustration, technically proficient violinists can use their bows to modify tone, accent, articulation and so on at will. Violinists lacking technical prowess but in possession of mechanical ability might move their bows gracefully but in ways that are disconnected from any expressive intent.

Hence, I define technique as, The means for executing musical ideas.

Here’s a summary of the technique-building strategies that you’ll find on pages 94-98 of The Musician’s Way.

1. Organize a Regimen
A regimen for improving technique begins with setting goals and establishing a practice schedule. I recommend that students document their technical aims using a practice sheet or notebook, gather targeted materials, and then stick to a consistent practice routine.

For instance, if a musician wants to advance her control in a particular register, she might pick up some suitable exercises and etudes; she could also compose original ones. Then, along with practicing other music, she might work on those materials for brief periods several times per day.

Such regular practice is crucial because technical skills require steady nurturing if they’re to grow and remain hardy. But we also need to set limits because technique practice uses select muscle groups which, if overused, could become injured.

So it’s crucial that we don’t practice any technique excessively but instead vary what we work on, take frequent breaks, and avoid sudden increases in practice time.

2. Emphasize Excellence
Just as important as the steadiness of our practice is its quality. Attentive technical work gives rise to artistic command; mindless repetition produces nothing of value.

Every moment that we practice, therefore, we should embody Habits of Excellence – ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude.

Then, excellence – that is, artistic excellence – becomes our default setting both in practice and on stage.

3. Delve into Details
All accomplished musicians gain and maintain their technical fluency by delving into fine details.

For example, as we review scales and arpeggios, we should notice any aspects of our execution that don’t feel or sound right and then unravel problems. That unraveling would entail, among other things, extracting technical ingredients and reviewing them in isolation.

Through this deliberate process, creative impediments disappear along with physical ones, and then artistic possibilities become limitless.

Preview The Musician’s Way at

Related posts
Balanced Shoulders, Open Heart
The Beauty in Basics
Clear Goals, Clear Process
Glorious Details
Habits of Excellence

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Mark Stout Photography, licensed from

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7 Responses to “Building Technique”

  1. Justin said:

    Oct 24, 11 at 06:55

    Mamet forgot to mention psychotherapy. Great post.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Oct 24, 11 at 13:16

    Funny! Thanks, Justin.

  3. Ellen Chavez de Leitner said:

    Oct 25, 11 at 16:01

    Perfect instructions for perfect practice in technique! Thank you!

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Oct 25, 11 at 18:09

    You’re welcome, Ellen. Thanks for contributing!

  5. Blair said:

    Nov 03, 11 at 13:15

    These are great strategies for improving technique but don’t forget to take some time and just play.

  6. Ryan Rhea said:

    Jan 22, 12 at 17:58

    I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, just recently took up violin and study both instruments every day. I came back to guitar as an adult, having taken quite some time off from playing, and immediately threw myself into a practice routine that has consisted mostly of technical exercises (scales, licks, etudes, etc.). I have made great strides with some things, and failed dismally at others (alternate picking at my desired speed has been IMPOSSIBLE to achieve, so I am now dedicated to economy picking for fast runs across string sets).

    All that to say, I have the book and just today got my notebook together and plan for the week, beginning tomorrow. Yay! I am already feeling like I don’t have enough time in the Technique zone, since my ENTIRE 2-3 hour practice is typically nothing but technique, improving over some backing tracks or a combo of both.

    I really need to acquire some repertory and build working on theory, sight reading and the like into my practice sessions (I have a weekly teacher for that on guitar and another for all things on the violin: theory, technique, repertory, etc.).

    I guess I am just worried that I won’t be able to keep up technique-wise if I cut so much time from that portion of study. Is it really possible to make appreciable speed and facility gains with so few recommended repetitions and such a small portion of time allotted to technique each day? I realize the quality of practice is key here, but coming from such an intensive regimen it just seems a bit too light.

    I am really looking forward to making lots of progress this year with your excellent book. I received it on Friday and I am already more than halfway through it. :)

    Thank you!


  7. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 22, 12 at 18:18

    Hi Ryan – Thanks for the comment and for picking up a copy of The Musician’s Way!
    The quick answer to your question is, yes! A balanced approach to practice will yield greater gains over time than one overly focused on a single practice zone.
    It sounds like you’ve concluded that your practice has been overweighted toward technique. Still, you’ve grown used to that practice pattern, so it understandably feels strange to diverge from it.
    Trust me: Your abilities to make music will improve most by learning attractive easy repertoire that requires you to apply your technique in artistic ways.
    As the music you learn advances through the New, Developing, and Performance zones, you’ll build accuracy, expressiveness and other habits of excellence that make up the inclusive nature of playing.
    Plus, you’ll grow your repertoire and have a great time in the process.
    You can balance that out with a moderate amount of time devoted to the Technique & Musicianship zones.
    Here’s wishing you great fun in your practice!