Monk vs. Oscar

I’m really interested in how artists treat the word ‘technique.’ (See posts on Technique and Perfect Technique).

For musicians, technique often refers to ‘fast playing,’ but can also refer to precision, control, range and balance. Virtuosos are master technicians. They possess all of these qualities. In an effort to improve our technique, we’re taught, for example, to master scales (in every key!)

But isn’t there a flaw in this approach? If you have no intention of performing music that requires the skills acquired from practicing scales, then why practice scales!?

There are two issues here: The musical and the physical.

We often hear the question: Who has better technique, Oscar Peterson or Thelonious Monk? It’s a silly question. Some will argue: “With his incredible facility, Oscar has ability to express more than Monk!” To which I respond: “Yes, Oscar can express more Oscar than Monk. But Monk can express more Monk than Oscar! Are you listening to the music or notes/minute!?”

What if Monk acquired technical skills beyond what was required of his own music? One day, he ‘mastered’ the C major scale and could play it up and down faster than anybody. Knowing that he would never use a scale like that, one could say that it wouldn’t benefit his music. It might one day benefit someone else’s music, but most likely, it was a waste of Monk’s time.

How does one know what technical exercises they should practice?

What do you want to perform? Pick your repertoire. Repertoire comes first.Music comes first. That should be your goal. Then devise a strategy to acquire the skills needed to execute the music (if you don’t have them already!). Technique is a means to this end, not an end in itself.

Side note: If you are a master technician (i.e. technique is your main objective), could you say that you are a composer’s means to this end?

In regards to the second issue (the physical), I fear that students are too often injuring themselves and becoming discouraged because of ‘technical expectations.’ Their physical limitations make it impossible for them to achieve the proficiency of say, Oscar Peterson. What they need to realize is that everybody has a point of physical exertion on their instrument that can’t be crossed without injury. I would encourage all musicians to explore the limits of their physicality but never try to achieve someone else’s.

Remember: Music comes first.

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