There’s an interesting trend in the fitness industry nowadays.

It’s called functional strength training, and is a reaction to the observation that raw strength in the gym doesn’t always necessarily translate into strength in the real world.

Meaning, being able to bench press 300 lbs. is a pretty impressive display of force, but this kind of strength may or may not transfer to real-world tasks like lifting heavy, awkwardly-shaped boulders out of the ground and loading them onto a truck bed, or fending off linebackers and defensive backs as you strain to get into the end zone.

Thus, functional strength training emphasizes whole movements, not just isolated muscles or joints. Where there is a greater emphasis on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses, which recruit more muscle groups, enhance neuromuscular coordination, and can contribute to the kind of strength gains which help us perform daily activities with greater ease, from getting up off a really deep couch, to lifting heavy moving boxes off the ground, to hoisting heavy objects onto the top shelf of a bookcase.

So what does this have to do with music?

I participated in a chamber music workshop one summer where Leon Fleisher was asked how important it was to focus on developing a stronger technique. Fleisher’s response was that you only need as much technique as is necessary to say what you’re trying to say.

Reflecting back on that statement now, I believe he was saying that functional technique trumps raw technique.

Indeed, as impressive as it is to see someone play a very technical piece of music flawlessly, it pales in comparison to seeing them play the same work with character, nuance, exquisite timing, phrasing, spontaneity, and all those elements that help to create an emotional reaction in the listener.

There is certainly a time and place for working on raw technique, where we isolate very specific mechanical elements of our playing and are able to tweak and improve our skills in a controlled setting. But if we neglect to work on developing our functional technique, we may discover that our technique is somewhat limited, and doesn’t hold up so well when we try to turn the notes into music.

So how do we develop greater functional technique?

Technique as a means to an end

I observed Itzhak Perlman give a master class several years ago in which he had one of his students do an interesting exercise. The student played a selection of music, and then Perlman asked her to play it again – but with the intention to communicate specific emotions requested by the audience. For instance, to play Kreisler’s Liebesleid, but with a touch of sarcasm, or bitterness, or joy (the audience was a fun group, and took the opportunity to request emotions that were not necessarily compatible with the intended mood of the piece).

Take action

Take out some repertoire (or even etudes) you know well, and try playing them where you turn all of your musical intentions up to 11. Add more suspense, more humor, more sadness, more mischief, and so on.

You may find that while you can play a generic or vanilla version of the piece flawlessly, playing uber-musically will stretch your technique in a different way that etudes aren’t necessarily designed to do. That pushing yourself to the edge of musical good taste (or even way beyond) will enhance your ability to leverage technique in service of more compelling performances. Performances that engender a stronger emotional reaction in the listener and leave them more satisfied with the experience of the performance.

Plus, it’s kind of fun! And you may even find that you’re so busy making music, that the basic technical challenges automagically recede into the background and become less of an issue…