Thursday, April 3, 2008


I play volleyball competitively. In fact, next month, I will play in the US Open in Atlanta, which will be the... (pauses a moment to count) ... 8th time for me to participate in this tournament. One of my teammates used to play on the Venezuelan National Team. His English is superior to my Spanish, but that's a fairly minimal distinction. That still leaves room for him to have some vocabulary troubles, and recently, he told me that he needed to play more volleyball. Reason being: "I need to improve my technique." This sounded strange to me, because he's 29, thereabouts, and given how much volleyball he's played, I figured his technique was pretty well set by this point. Later in the day, we were discussing a player on another team who was an exceptional passer. My friend said, "Wow, he has very good technique." After the tournament, he used this word for a third time, saying he thinks when his technique has improved, he'll be able to make even more valuable contributions to our team.

I stewed on these statements for a few days. Eventually, I asked him to explain himself. I told him, in my best Inigo Montoya voice, "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means." I told him I felt like the word he was looking for was "skill", which is how well (or poorly) someone does something. Technique, on the other hand, is the word for how somebody does something.

How well versus how. Subtle difference.

The way I see it, it is possible that someone does something very skillfully because they have excellent technique. In volleyball, perhaps they have excellent body and arm position for forearm passes, or their armswing reaches maximum height without unnecessary movements, or they have excellent blocking footwork. Conversely, they could be gifted athletically or have lots of experience, and they are highly skilled despite poor technique. (I can think of some golfers this might apply to.)

He had a ready explanation for this... his Spanish word for skill is something along the lines of T├ęcnico. This also didn't sound right, as I knew this word to be the Portuguese word for "Coach" or Technician... I had always used habilidad for skill, but hey, he's the native speaker, so who am I to quibble? Anyway, we had a laugh and moved on with our lives.

Now take five minutes out of your life to watch this clip of Evgeny Kissin. It will be totally worth it, I promise. He plays a Liszt Etude that I hope to play some day myself, something called La Campanella. (Italian and, I reckon, Spanish for "The Little Bell"? All this free language information today, you didn't anticipate that today's entry had so much bloggy goodness, did you?) Kissin thoroughly dominates this piece. By the end, the poor guy is sweating profusely. I have to run a mile to look like that. Wonder was his heart rate was at the end of this?

Anyway, the comments on this clip are very interesting to me. I haven't read them all (there are, at this moment, over 1,300), but many of them mention how good his technique is. I have no idea what these people are talking about. I see Kissin sitting up straight, but every musician I have ever known sits up straight, especially when playing music. My buddy discopalace (hi, discopalace, welcome...) (you ought to see his beautiful piano!) points out that his wrists are very quiet while his hands and fingers are creating all sorts of commotion. I concede this point, but is this technique? All I see... hands and fingers flying in a blur, and yet hitting all the right notes. This, to me, is not technique, it is otherworldly talent combined with lots and lots of practice.

My Alfred book purports to teach me "lessons, theory and technic"... (apparently, it's "technic" when you are talking piano). It isn't entirely clear to me which is which. And this is a big deal, because I understand that the biggest risk in my going without a teacher, especially in the early going, is that I will acquire poor technique (er, technic), which will require significant effort to unlearn.

I will have a teacher some day, perhaps late summer or early fall. What should I be doing in terms of "technic" that will minimize the damage here early on? Discuss.

And wow, isn't that performance something?


ral said...

I can't give you a precise definition of "technique," but my teacher, who is a professional pianist, has given me numerous very small changes, each one of which has made a perceptible improvement in my playing.

Usually she makes one of these suggestions (and only one at a time) after watching me play something I have memorized and can play the notes correctly. Some are to improve the musicality, others just to help make playing easier.

Examples: focus on dynamics in a phrase, play some phrase very legato even though using the pedal, use consistent fingering, use fingering that is the same as used when playing scales, and (very useful) practice RELAXING in places where there is a pause, especially in a difficult passage.

I think this is one of the big advantages of having a good teacher -- one who can observe what you do and give you a small change that can make a big difference, and one who knows WHEN to make that suggestion.

ral said...

I thought a bit about your concern,

... the biggest risk in my going without a teacher, especially in the early going, is that I will acquire poor technique...

I also tried to teach myself, without notable success, before I found my wonderful teacher. So, in the spirit of helping you avoid a mistake I made, I offer this:

If you find you are having trouble with something, making mistakes, not sounding the way you want, don't try to force it. Instead, STOP! Relax, take a moment, then simplify it.

That is, focus on the area you're having trouble with and try to correct the error. Play slower. Play one hand at a time. Play a smaller phrase, perhaps only the notes around a difficult transition. Try to make it smooth and relaxed. Then when you're satisfied with it expand, speed up, etc. Take it a small step at a time.

I definitely picked up some habits I had to unlearn later and this was the reason -- I didn't follow the above advice. I hope this helps you.

ral said...

And wow, isn't that performance something?

Yeah. It's amazing that a human being can do that.

Anonymous said...

Enter the Word Geek (Didn't know that was me, didja? LOL):

Technique is the set of "things" that you must learn to do something. So for piano, it would be things like posture, those quiet wrists of Kissin's, fingering scales correctly, etc.

Skill is how you apply all those pieces in what you do.

So perhaps your volleyball friend was right- he does want to improve some basic techniques in order to improve his overall skill.

Some techniques are easy to pick up on your own; some seem (for me anyway) to require demonstration. I know there have been some things I can read all the description in Alfred's or other places I want, but until I see my teacher and she shows me what it is, I can't figure it out.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

So, 2ndsoprano, if I am reading you correctly, technique isn't so much something you acquire once and for all, but rather acquire and continually maintain and refine. I would think this would be certainly true for something like a golf swing, that has lots of variables. I am not far enough along on my piano journey to know whether or not playing the piano is comparable in terms of complexity, but on first glance, I'd allow for the possibility, certainly.

Thanks everyone for your comments, this really is helpful for me.

Anonymous said...

Oh,yes, it certainly applies to piano. As a full on beginner, it's enough to deal with to handle the techniques of learning what keys relate to what notes, how to play simple scale fingerings, basic pedal use, and the the like. As you advance, you begin to add those techniques to your skill set and learn more advanced techniques- half pedaling, finger legato, ornaments, etc. I'm not sure that there does come a time when you can say that you have learned all the technique. Certainly there are years ahead of all of us adult beginners.

discopalace said...

I think there's so much you can learn as a beginner, with or without a teacher. Don't worry about developing bad technique yet - there aren't too many things you can totally screw up, and for those, you can unlearn later. The key is just to get better in general, so any effort you make will be rewarding. A teacher, perhaps, would just help your skill progress faster.