Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Developing Technique - How, When and Why?

I have been thinking lately about the importance of technique. Is it imperative to being a successful instrumentalist, or merely a means to an end - that of artistic musical expression?

Following various discussions with colleagues and other teachers, considering both my own and my students techniques I find myself conflicted.

Of course I want my students to develop good technique. But prioritising mastery of technical aspects at the cost of moving through enjoyable and inspirational repertoire? Perhaps this philosophy will never produce any virtuosos, but I do believe music is more about creativity, expression, and sharing and enjoying the art than being technically accurate.

Personally I feel, as a teacher I need to strike the right balance with each student between developing the technical aspects and building a repertoire that is fun and musically satisfying. This varies depending on age, motivations and learning style.

There are differing opinions on when children should start learning, but whatever the age, a child's developmental stage must be catered for. At 6 motor skills and cognitive skills are still developing, gross motor skills come before fine motor skills (which are mostly used in instrumental playing). By 8 or 9 the child should have reasonable dexterity - a good judge could be in handwriting. Yet children are, of course, still developing, things like the fine motor skills are still being refined. On top of this, we all develop at varying rates, a young student may not be physically able to correctly manipulate the bow for example - right at this moment in time, it's just not happening - but that isn't to say that it never will.

I believe little exercises and gentle corrections of technique repeated over the weeks and months will set it in place in the long term. Considering also, social development, young students are starting to find their independence and their own self confidence. Music can help this flourish, but we must balance the criticism with commendation, that students don't lose interest or become frustrated or insecure in their own ability.

For adult beginners I believe the same applies, albeit from a slightly different perspective. In respect to the physical, movements might be more restricted, fingers for example that have never made these movements may find it hard to form the correct shape and to work independently as required. That's not to say you can't teach an old dog new tricks so to speak, it just might take longer, you might need to find some work-arounds. Of course I wouldn't intentionally ignore practicing good technique, but for most adult students, the goal is to do something for themselves, to have fun and enjoy playing. At the start it can be challenging, everything is so new, and as an adult student you must be 100% self motivated, not the same as for the youngsters who have parents reminding them to practice!. So with that in mind, there needs to be some satisfaction in playing right from day one. Finding that balance between technical requirements, enjoyable repertoire and a sense of ongoing improvement, otherwise it becomes a chore, while other commitments and responsibilities take over.

In both cases, particularly considering beginners, the importance of technique is to allow us to achieve a variety of good sounds, and without pain or injury. But there is no one size fits all way of playing. Even among great musicians, beyond certain cornerstones, there are many different ideas about how to achieve certain sounds. Our technique should be allowed to evolve as does our musicianship. Besides, we are all built differently so it would follow that we move around our instruments differently too.

I would tend to approach the development of technique in a slow-burn kind of way, over time muscles will get used to certain movements as the player starts to get the feel for how they can achieve the sounds they want to make. The bottom line - it should feel natural and without tension.
In the meantime working through a variety of repertoire that is at both challenging and satisfying. And, as time goes by we make constant adjustments and improvements. If we turn the learning into an iterative process it seems to me that the brain can come to grips with the new movements. The new ideas musical and technical have time to brew and mature in parallel.

I may be wrong, but I'm not convinced that labouring technique is necessarily that effective. Music is an art after all so I consider that nurturing the enjoyment and musical expression of emotions to be a more pertinent endeavour for the developing musician. A student who is enjoying music is always prone to more and better practice. It's all in finding the right balance for the student I guess.

Please share your thoughts on this in the comments below, it's a worthwhile discussion to have and helps me to improve what I do.

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