Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Sense(s) of Technique

Use your senses to improve your technique!

OK, so maybe we'll leave out smell and taste, unless you're using them to avoid older reeds!

My point in using the graphic above is to introduce this post on how we can use our senses (sight, touch and hearing, anyway!)effectively for better technique while playing. 

Reliance upon sight may work for easier passages; but for accuracy and repetition, having all three at your disposal and knowing how to use them intelligently really help!


Sight is the dominant sense we use when reading music. We are visual beings. With today's heavy reliance upon looking at screens and the printed page, many say that the sense of sight is now the most dominant sense for humans.

Pattern recognition

The most important tool for great technique is pattern recognition. Seeing patterns in the music is the way to start. Knowledge of how music is structured (music theory!) can be very helpful. 

Recognizing that Bar 1 below consists solely of an F major triad, Bar 2, Bb triad, etc. makes this passage easy:


When you learn to read words, once you learn the alphabet, you read by grouping letters to form words, grouping words to form sentences, etc. Music is the same way. If you have to read each note and aren't making groups while you read music, your technique will not advance.

Find groups in the lines you play that make musical or visual sense (or both!). Group pairs of high notes together and low notes together below:


Sometimes, it's important to make sure your eye focuses on one particular note or pair of notes in a passage. To find this "linchpin", play the passage several times focusing your eye on a different place on the page each time. Which choice makes the passage flow easier? Circle the note(s) with a pencil and your eye will go to it every time. Certainly the grace note in the Beethoven example below would qualify as a linchpin.

The Sequence of events

When reading music, there are a few things we must decide.

1. When to look at the music
2. How often to look at the music
3. How much music to look at at a time 
4. When to look ahead 

There is a sequence of events that must be managed. The eyes feed the brain and the brain tells the body parts (tongue, fingers, breath,etc.) what to do with the information given it by the eyes. The way this sequence plays out is dictated by the pace and difficulty of the music. 

Through practice, you can avoid a musical version of this from happening:

Circled below are the notes I look at when playing the Beethoven 4th last movement solo:

How Much 

Most musicians are prone to group large numbers of notes together -- a complete scale, for instance. With some slower tempos, this may be quite reliable. However, when the speed is quick, finding a smaller grouping is better.

I admit that at a fast tempo, I can't play more than 4-5 notes in a row securely without having to look ahead for another small group. Going from beat to beat like this often works well:


The question of when your eye should "feed" your brain is also important. If you're getting stuck on a technical passage, examine not only how much you feed your brain, but WHEN you do as well. Maybe you're looking too far ahead, maybe you're not looking ahead soon enough, maybe you're not looking ahead at all! Practice adjusting this timing and you may find a way "out of the woods" of sloppy technique!

Wandering Eyes

Our world is full of stimulation and we have become used to glancing at screens, etc. at an alarming rate during waking hours. It's hard for most of us to remain focused on one thing for very long. Males have more trouble with this than females, studies have shown.

By comparison, reading music is really boring -- just black spots on a white page!! Training your eyes to stay focused on one thing for a long period of time -- even just a couple of minutes -- can be challenging.

Notice when your eye wanders from the page and gently urge it to return. Try to eliminate the distractions in your practice area and light the room so that the music stand is a focal point.

In performance, try to ignore distractions and learn to recover your focus after you are distracted. Stare at the page if you must! Practice by having someone make noise in a hall while you're playing and see how you do!


Music is an aural art, so having a great ear is of the utmost importance. There are a few things you can do to improve your technique through training your ear.

Hear every note

Can you hear EVERY note in a technical passage? I know that I can play a passage more cleanly if I am really hearing every pitch. Try singing a technical passage slowly. Use slow practice not only to train your fingers, but to intensify how you HEAR the passage. Don't let up on this as you increase the tempo. 

Hear it before you play it

Hear the passage before you play it. Like performing with good sound and intonation, you must have a concept of how a technical passage should SOUND beforehand and try to hear it before you play it. Leave nothing to chance!

Hear groupings

Can you hear the individual groupings you've chosen while playing?

Hear your phrasing

Related to hearing groupings, but you should be able to hear the phrasing you've practiced slowly when playing up to tempo. My technique is cleaner when I've assigned a role to EVERY note in a passage.

To enhance your sense of hearing for a passage, practice it with your eyes closed.


How a passage feels under your fingers is important. Through slow practice you build muscle memory. When you choose groupings, try to get a unified muscle memory feel for the groups in your fingers and hands. 

What does it feel like to play an F major arpeggio, for instance? Try playing some "air bassoon"!

Is there a hand position that works best for a particular group? In the passage below, I rotate my right wrist slightly down and in for the G-F-G alternation and slightly up and out for the Bb to minimize finger action. The slight rolling of the wrist automatically brings the fingers closer to the keys and keeps you loose!

Maybe the rotation of left index finger for half hole is important? In measure 2 of this passage from Figaro, a slight rotation of the index finger, from completely covering the tone hole for E to slightly opening it for F#, etc., provides the finishing touch for the proper "feel" of this passage.

For the thumbs, is there a position that helps a passage become more fluid? 

To eliminate unnecessary motion in this passage I point my left thumb up towards the high C key (UP) when playing high Bb and down towards the whisper key for high G (DOWN) when playing high A.

For smooth legato, place the right thumb on the low E key as close as possible to the F# key in this passage.

To enhance your sense of touch for a passage, practice it with your eyes closed. 


For secure, brilliant execution of technical passages, we need to use the senses of sight, hearing and touch. One sense may get us through safely quite often, but there will be times when that's not enough. 

Through slow practice you can sharpen the other two senses as backups. For instance, when your eye wanders off the page, often muscle memory takes over and you finish the passage securely. And seeing a passage well on the page may get you through cleanly, but your ear will be the sense that will guide your phrasing because of how you hear the passage.

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