At any given time I will have at least one student—often more—who tends to think of music making like a chef following a recipe. I mentioned this in the first article in this series several weeks ago. These students approach playing as if quality performance must result from simply following all of the “instructions” with regard to execution and interpretation. The problem, as I noted then, is that the physical act of playing is more complicated than we think, involving a number of minute actions of which we are not often consciously aware. In that article—as well as most of the others that have followed in this series—I have emphasized this intuitive aspect of playing the instrument, and argued that a key to great performance is having as much of the physical activity of playing as possible operating subconsciously, allowing the conscious mind to focus more simply on “how it goes.”
To conclude this series, I’m circling back to this initial idea but approaching it from a slightly different angle. While in the first article I discussed how skilled, efficient technical execution should flow from a well-developed sound concept, today I want to suggest that the development of technique itself should flow first of all from musical ideas. The development of technique—particularly of new techniques—is basically the art of figuring out how to make the instrument reproduce the idea in your head.
As a doctoral student I devoted a significant part of my dissertation work to studying the life and music of Arthur Pryor (1870-1942), a trombone soloist and assistant conductor with John Philip Sousa (1856-1932) who later formed his own band and had a long career conducting broadcast and recording sessions for the Victor Company. Pryor’s father was a local bandmaster in St. Joseph, Missouri, who taught his son to play a number of instruments, but no one in town had ever seen a slide trombone until the elder Pryor received one in a seemingly chance occurrence. The younger Pryor was instructed to go and figure out how to play it on his own, and in time developed prodigious technical skills that would one day revolutionize trombone playing everywhere, his position touring and recording with Sousa giving him a worldwide audience unlike any experienced by a trombonist previously.
What’s my point in bringing up Pryor? Having had no instruction in slide trombone or any access to instructional materials or teachers familiar with the instrument, he had no preexisting ideas of the supposed limitations of his new instrument. He simply figured out how to play the music he had either performed himself on other instruments or heard performed by others. He had the musical ideas in place first, and then developed the technique to make that happen. I’m sure the same is the case with everyone who has developed some revolutionary new technique on his instrument. Think more recently of the development of extended techniques like multiphonics, or the various effects now possible by running brass instrument sounds through electronic processors. There were no instructional materials on any of these things, just musicians with ideas and a willingness to experiment and develop new techniques to bring those ideas to pass.
In the first article in this series I admonished readers to “Begin with Sound Concept,” and my point was really that even as you are learning and practicing various playing techniques you should always proceed first of all with an inner idea of the sound you want to produce. My point here is similar, but takes it a step further. Don’t learn techniques and then figure out music to play with them. That is rarely how great music happens or new ideas are developed. Instead, get a sound in your head—whether a traditional one or something innovative—and then develop the technique to do it. If an established technique is what is needed, then still let that musical concept lead the way as you improve that skill. If a new technique is needed to bring your ideas to fruition, then experiment until you find and perfect something that works. Either way, technique flows from music.