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Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

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soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

Don’t beat time, conduct the phrases.

You’re not directing music, you’re directing human beings.

It’s not about the technique, it’s about the meaning

These are all valid and valuable lessons to teach, But it occurs to me that they are lessons you can only really use effectively once you can handle the first term in each example.

Conducting the phrases when you can’t beat time removes the metrical underpinning that allows the phrases to make sense. The human beings you’re directing are there for the music, so if you neglect that, you neglect their needs. People can feel the music as strongly as anything but without the skills to execute it, they won’t succeed in communicating the meaning.

In order to transcend technique, that is, you need to have some technique to transcend.

The greatest struggle facing adult amateur musicians is how to cope with the combination of a patchy and underdeveloped technique with a fully-developed, intelligent and committed musical comprehension. When you learn music as a child, your sense of how music should go grows in tandem with your skills at handling its materials. When you learn music as an adult, your years of engaged listening constantly plague you with the gap between what you are producing and what you want to hear.

This is compounded, of course, by much training available for adult amateurs happening in short, intense bursts – day courses, weekends, occasionally full weeks – rather than the week-in-week-out structure of skill-development that facilitates the systematic acquisition of competence.*

For such people, being invited to let go of those pesky technical details that they can’t do very well yet and embrace their adult capacities where they already feel competent is often a welcome message. But I’m not convinced it’s an entirely helpful one. One does lose interest in technique once it’s embedded securely, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer important, it just means you’ve got some spare capacity to think about more holistic things.

When an educator invites you to transcend technique, they are often talking about their own stage on their own journey. Which by definition is usually further along than those they are there to teach. But those earlier stages are still important. Looking back on my early years of teaching, I don’t think opening a window would have made too much difference to the students if I hadn’t actually prepared my two-hour lecture on Beethoven.

I’d like to see these invitations to think about the bigger picture reframed as explicitly transcending, rather than implicitly bypassing, the nitty gritty:

Don’t just beat time, conduct the phrases

The better you know the music, the more you can focus on the human beings in your care.

The whole point of technique is to help communicate meaning.

To be sure, it’s easier and more fun for someone working at a reasonably high level to teach that higher-level stuff. But it’s not necessarily serving the needs of those we support as well as we might.


*At this point, I need to make a plug for the Association of British Choral Directors’ extended courses which really do nurture a much more solidly-founded skillset than any day-course could offer.
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