The Technique-Expression Duality is Fake

Allow me to take a moment to break down the duality between technique and expression.

This is the current existential crisis that I am dealing with. For most of my musical life, I have heard about two different kinds of players: robotic finger machines and artistic melody weavers (in some cases: orchestral players and solo players). There seems to be a common misconception that in order to have flawless technique, one must give up musicality to a certain extent. In the other direction, it seems to be popular opinion that one could never play beautiful phrases without sacrificing technique.

Technique, in this case, usually refers to a person’s ability to play all the right notes at the right times, never cracking them. Expression is a person’s ability to tell a story, create dynamics, and move an audience to have some kind of feelings.

But once I start thinking about these concepts beyond the simple definitions, they start to form a Venn-diagram that has a pretty large center section. Technique and expression are actually bound up together. A certain amount of technical ability is required to create sweeping phrases and a certain amount of musicality is required to play correct notes.

The real problem surrounding this binary pair is that one half of it is objective while the other is subjective. Technique can be fairly objective; one needs only count up the wrong notes to measure technical success. Meanwhile, musicality is the most subjective concept there is.

So how do we reconcile this seeming paradox? Subjective and objective are unarguably opposites. Yet, instinctively, technique and musicality are intertwined.

We can reject either implied premise: that technique is objective or that musicality is subjective. This would require accepting, ergo, that either technique isn’t so black-and-white or that musicality is more measurable than we think. There might be a case for this one-sided approach.

HOWEVER, we could also think these words as a combination of objectivity and subjectivity. Technique, although seemingly measurable, has values that are subject to the listener and the moment. For example, fast notes in a church won’t ever sound as clean as in a practice room (to give a simple example). Musicality, although seemingly subjective, may be somewhat measurable. In fact, many psychologists have developed ways to measure the perception of expression.

The real story here is that technique and musicality are two sides of the same coin but some of us flip heads up more often than tails. Just hitting the notes is easy. Ok, it’s not easy but it is certainly attainable. Playing musically with no regard for the notes is equally doable.

Doing both is hard. Grey space is hard. We can accept concrete definitions of technique and musicality but the wibbly-wobbly definitions I propose are hard to hold onto.

But that just means we have to try harder to get it. Most of us will spend our entire lifetimes in the pursuit of that Venn-diagram.

And maybe that pursuit itself is enough.



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