Technique Similarities Between Different Instrument Families

This article mainly addresses string and piano technique, though the principles apply to ALL instruments. (And to doing anything, actually!)

Whether reading music, playing from memory or by ear, you play music and want it to sound the way you want. Right? This holds true whether a beginning guitarist, jazz pianist or an advanced violinist playing Bach.

Well, without “good” technique that’s not going to happen. Though rhythmic ability and ear training level can bypass technique at times, your technique needs to accommodate what you are playing. The more intricate the music, the more “expert” the technique. I’ve seen prominent guitarists with “terrible” technique…, but it’s good enough to play what they play, so fine. It’s the music that counts. (Technique is important but can be over- or under-emphasized, as with anything else.)

The purpose of having “good” technique is threefold: (1) maximize finger dexterity, (2) maximize control over rhythm, volume and tone, and (3) prevent strain and body damage.

There are over 60 muscles, bones and tendons in each forearm, wrist and hand. (Yet alone how they connect to the other 600 or so muscles in the body!) Remember singing the “Skeleton Song” as a kid? (Also called “Dry Bones”.) “The finger bone’s connected to the hand bone, the hand bone’s connected to the arm bone…”

Well that’s what is going on. All the parts are connected, directly or indirectly. I had a piano student whose right foot would begin to rise when playing, from tension traveling down her arm, through her back and down into the legs. And if you watch a beginner practicing something difficult you might see his or her mouth begin to tighten up: that’s physical tension. (You can read more about this at my blog post, “Physical Tension Indicators”.)

The main purpose of practicing is to gain control over what you are playing. Sure, you need to learn the music itself, i.e., play the right notes, learn the songs, etc., but you need to control your hands and body to play anything at all. Hence technique.

Prior to gaining control, it’s common to use force to make the body do what you want. The more force you use the more tension you create. As the tension builds, you actually lose control and the ability to play well. And that’s no fun.


As these physical attributes are common to playing any instrument, so are the principles governing good technique.

Weight and Gravity

An “arm” probably weighs about five to ten pounds, depending on body size. Combine that weight with gravity, and… how hard do you need to squeeze a guitar neck in order to play a note? How much force is needed to press a little string down to the neck? Practically none at all. By positioning your body correctly you can let your arm weight and gravity do all the work. (Though you have to slightly “squeeze” bar chords on an acoustic guitar most of the time.) I sprained my left thumb a few weeks ago and in order to get through a number of bass gigs needed to let my left arm really hang on the neck in order to play—sometimes without using my thumb at all: weight and gravity. (And of course there are shredding guitar techniques where the sound is accomplished by squeezing and using tension—but those are specific techniques, rather than an overall approach.)

With piano, you use the weight of your hands, arms, upper torso and full body to press down the keys. (The piano is not just played with the fingers!) You need to drill each connecting part in order to use body weight and gravity to do the work. However, if you are a singer learning piano as a reference instrument, how good does it have to be? And I saw an interview with Chick Corea talking about his piano technique. He mentioned that it was fine for playing jazz (he is a master!), but when he performed a Mozart Piano Concerto he needed to refine it in order to smoothly play the passages.

Your technique needs to be as good as the music demands.

Bowed instruments get a little tricky. You need to keep your arm weight (gravity) consistent while pulling/pushing the bow evenly from one end to the other while possibly holding your arm up and the same time! Talk about skill! (Bowing technique has many similarities to breath control on a wind instrument, by the way.)

And drums, how can your fingers be relaxed if your hands and arms are tight? (My friend, Tom Mendola, has some awesome drum technique info at his site.)


My favorite, anonymous quote is “Play the music, not the instrument.”

This is largely accomplished by having your technique match what you are playing.

Whether you pluck, pick, hit, press or blow, technique simply needs to accommodate the music you are playing. No more and no less.

Marty B.
(818) 242-7551
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