Raw Technique vs. Functional Technique

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…

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14 Responses

  1. Thanks for another insightful post, Noa. Love the examples and terminology.

    In my work, I define technique as “the means for executing musical ideas,” so, as I see it, functional technique is the only kind of technique there is (what you call “raw technique,” I term “mechanical skill”).

    Labels aside, what you and Perlman make clear is that artistic musicians possess expressive intentions and the tools to deliver those intentions to listeners.

    You often point out, and I concur, that music educators under-equip students to perform securely when they emphasize playing instruments and neglect the skills involved in performing music.

    In the same vein, I’ve observed that when educators prioritize mechanical skills to the degree that they leave students without the tools to express themselves, the foundation is laid for students’ intrinsic motivation to ebb and performance anxiety to mushroom. You agree?

    1. Wonderful article, and I totally agree, Gerald! I’ve been finding more and more with my own students that when I’m able to show them the musical functionality of even the rawest technical exercises, they’re more motivated to practice them.

      This stands in contrast to the thought of “technique for the sake of technique” (which I see a lot with drummers). It’s important that the instructor is able to help the student bridge the perception gap between a technical exercise and that exercise’s musical function/application.

    2. Hi Gerald,

      Totally agree; when we put such an emphasis on technical perfection as the primary dependent measure of excellence and one’s worth as a musician, perfectionism can be an unfortunate side effect, which certainly tends to make performance anxiety more of an issue.

      Even in sports, if young basketball players keep getting benched for making mistakes and aren’t allowed to play through them at times, they start going into games being afraid to make mistakes. And when one’s primary goal is simply to avoid mistakes, it’s tough to play assertively and make plays that help your team win.

  2. This is an impressively well-timed article. I actually learned about and used the Perlman technique of expression of characters from a student of his a few years ago. Your article comes at a time when I am currently figuring out the most strategic and efficient way to get better. One recalls how Steve Jobs simplified his products into two main categories of consumer and professional products, and then separating those two categories into portable and nonportable machines for his return to Apple in the late 90’s. Likewise, I have found the importance of understanding the difference between functional and raw technique, as well as using this technique to achieve two kinds of musicality: appropriateness of the music, and the inspirational, emotional aspect of it. People have always commented on how I have good technique, and that I have no problem with technique, and I never understood nor believed them. I realized in the past few months that what they meant was that I have good raw technique, but noticing that I’ve always had problems in real music such as concertos or excerpts, what I now realized was that my technique was sometimes almost useless in the face of trying to achieve certain characters in the piece, as well as to perfect certain rhythmic motives, such as those in scherzo excerpts. We students sometimes get so lost in trying to accomplish perfection in the basics, but we forget about the end product of music that we play. I remember particularly my audio recording engineer professor, who told me that no matter what, it is the end product that matters to the ears of the listener. Armed with this newfound insight into the simplicity of the complexity of music, I have recently started practicing trying to reach the end goals described above. However, it is funny to say that even with these insights, music is still hard. My spiccatto has improved dramatically over the past few weeks, but in those same weeks, I have not been able to achieve as happy of a character as I want in the Allegro giocoso of Brahms’s 4th symphony. One thinks about certain great masters such Steven Isserlis who, according to himself when I asked him, doesn’t really practice that much, and only listens. Come to think of it, the skill of listening is really the skill of being able to hear and feel what the audience hears and feels.

  3. The timing of this article was perfect! I am preparing for several recitals this month and have been worried about my ‘raw technique.’ Meanwhile, I left the audience out of the picture! This article really helped. Thank you!!

  4. I think the idea of “raw” technique has an incorrect assumption underlying it — that the purpose of technique is to train the hands. It’s not. It’s to train the mind to keep up at any speed. Scales/Hanon on a piano are not there to just chug through and train the muscles. These are small muscle groups anyway — you’re not going to be “bulking them up” to play on heavier and heavier keyboards.

    What you’re doing is training the mind to know the keyboard landscape without even thinking, as naturally as you know the inside of your mouth. Then, when you reach for a fifth or a sixth up on BMaj, your hand will tilt without you thinking about it.

    Scales and Hanon are worthless if the brain isn’t engaged, because it’s not about the muscles. You’ve got to be thinking about it 100%, the whole time. Mindless pounding accomplishes nothing.

    I guess that’s another way of saying it IS functional training, not for the muscles but for the mind. Making coherent, whole mental movements while playing scales or etudes. We play instruments with our minds, after all. A lot of people really do not get this — that ANYONE can play even Paganini if you slow it down enough. It’s playing it at speed, and remembering to do all the things you need to do in time to do them, that’s the killer. And then knowing it so well that you can free your conscious mind to think more about the message you want to send. It’s all about removing the instrument as an obstacle between you and whatever you want to say through it.

    As far as expression goes, I’ve got this idea in my head that I would love to write a piece and put the sheet music up on my website with no dynamic or metronome markings at all, not even a name. And just invite people to play it however they think it should be played — and see what happens. I will do it at some point, after I pop a few more things off the stack. I’m incredibly curious even as to how many “expressive equilibria” are possible for the pieces I’ve finished so far. It’s part of why I tend not to like dynamic markings, like “business” on a script. I know how I want to play the piece; why should I tell another pianist how to play it? Figuring that out is their job. And they may find another totally coherent and good way to play a piece that I never thought of.

    This is why I own multiple DVDs of “Macbeth” and “Othello,” because I crave finding new ways of interpreting old things.

    Anyhow. Good morning! 🙂

    1. Janis, very well articulated insight . . . thank you. I especially liked your comments in paragraph #4. It’s very true . . . I can play any guitar solo using the tools that I have available but playing it at the scripted speed with the desire “feel” is the challenge.

      I think “. . . removing the instrument as an obstacle between you and whatever you want to say through it” is rather profound and on-point. I’ll have to remember that. As Bruce Lee aptly pointed it, “it’s the emotional content.”

      Thanks for sharing!

      1. For some pianists — Montero and Tatum are the most obvious examples — the piano ceases to exist when they perform, and it’s as if the thing morphs into a speaker that’s plugged right into their heads. It’s just them on stage, and the unfiltered noise coming out of their brains. The piano has disappeared.

    2. Cool idea, Janis! You’ll have to let us know how it goes when you put that music up online for download. Sounds like a project you could start a YouTube channel around…

  5. When did improvisation become completely divorced from classical music? Oh wait, that’s for another time and place. 🙂

    To post something here from jazz land that relates to this post, I offer the following wisdom from Hal Galper.

    “Technique is in the brain, not in the hands.”
    and, “prerehearse everything”, meaning hear it internally, very clearly and loudly, before playing. The real work is mental, not physical. If you can’t hear it clearly, you’ll never play it.

    Hal Galper – Technique part 1:

    Hal Galper – Technique part 2:

    “Let the melody be your guide.” “Tell a story when you play.”

  6. Hey Noa, I was wondering how does one make music with emotion? I’m still a beginner Classical Guitarist so playing with emotions is still very much uncharted waters to me. I understand there is Dynamics and tonal production. Is there anything I’m missing? I’ pretty sure one has to follow the score- meaning, the note values, rests and such- but how much can you divert from the actual score?

    1. Hi Leon,

      Great question – though I’m not sure how to answer this in a practically helpful yet succinct way. I’m sure there are books out there that some readers might be able to recommend, and I’m sure your teacher will be able to show you through demonstrations what you can do, but in the meantime, I think you will also be able to glean quite a bit from Ben Zander’s TED talk in which he speaks to your question.

      On a fundamental level, music is about patterns. And when our brain hears music, it’s trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. Will this go up or down? Louder or softer? Forward or backwards? And so on in increasingly complex and nuanced ways, whether we’re talking about melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, color, texture, etc. Playing around with the listener’s expectations – either giving them what they expect, delaying it, or switching it up entirely is a big part of what elicits an emotional response of some kind. And a big part of what makes playing/performing music fun for the musician. At least, that’s my limited understanding of it; this kind of thing is a bit out of my area of expertise and really more in the area of music psychology (like this article, or a book like Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music).

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