An advocation for exploration: Technique beyond

What is good technique? 

When I first started piano, I wasn’t even sure what technique was. I was eight years old and I was taught not to collapse my wrists or the arch of my palm and that finger strength was everything. I played my obligatory scales, arpeggios and Hanon exercises in blissful unawareness of what any of it actually meant. In truth, I hated it. The finger exercises were monotonous, and I much preferred playing pieces over drills. When I got to high school, I had a piano teacher who thought technical drills and scales were useless and we happily just worked on technique through pieces. 

For a long time, I wasn’t exactly sure what my definition of technique was. I knew what good technique was when I heard it. It was those students who could flawlessly and effortlessly shake out octaves, riffs and arpeggios with blistering clarity. That kind of virtuosity was never something I particularly aspired to, finding myself at home more in a quiet Chopin nocturne or more facile Mozart sonata. My philosophy was that I wanted enough technique to be able to play what I wanted, no more and no less. 

My time at Lawrence has challenged all my conceptions of what technique is. I grumbled my way through the freshman technique exam (which, embarrassingly, I had to take twice), begrudgingly spent my time on advanced thirds, sixths, octaves and broken chord arpeggios my sophomore year and have honestly never looked at a technique book or exercise since. What changed for me, though, was that I no longer thought of technique as a purely physical thing, but, rather, I began to think about it in terms of sound. 

During my time at Lawrence, I’ve been incredibly lucky to study with Associate Professor of Music Anthony Padilla, and his philosophy about technique is always about sound. From him, I’ve learned how different fingers can create different sounds. I’ve learned about rotations and different speeds of releasing and depressing the keys. I finally learned how to project and get a big sound. My palette has expanded tremendously, and it was an enormous breakthrough to realize how intimately tied technique and artistry are. His teachings on technique opened up an entire new world for me where my artistry and sound were not dependent on the technique I had, but rather supported and furthered by it. I learned that everything is connected. 

In a way, I think so much comes down to listening. You can have the fastest, strongest and most agile fingers in the entire world and still not be a great pianist if you don’t use your ear. So much is about applying that technique into creating an individual and personal sound that is both physically comfortable and artistically satisfying. The sounds are responsible for expression, for drawing the audience and introducing them to all the characters, colors and worlds within a piece. But for any of that to happen, you have to listen and be aware. 

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring my instrument. One of the first exercises I did with Instructor of Music Matt Turner was to find ten unique sounds on my instrument. This was one of the first times I’d actually explored the inside of the piano, the sounds of the wood of the piano, the sound the pedal makes when it’s depressed and what sounds happen when you play with so-called “bad technique.” None of this is anything I’d do all the time, but the result is that another world of possibilities opened for me as I began to think about my instrument in its entirety. What does a piano truly sound like? What is the sound of the mechanisms and all the knots that make a piano work in the traditional way it has for hundreds of years? What possibilities does a piano have for sound beyond depressing the keys?

I still have a long way to go in my development of my understanding of my instrument and all its unique capabilities. I am forever grateful to have worked with professors who have pushed me to expand any conceptions I’ve had about technique and playing and I encourage other students to explore in similar ways. Play your instrument upside down. Bow the tail. Play the inside of the piano with a soft mallet. Of course, it’s exploration within reason. The last thing you want to do is damage yourself or your instrument, but still, the possibilities are positively endless.