There is a perennial debate among musicians concerning the seeming dichotomy between "musical expression" and "technique". Musicians love to argue over which is more important, to have "chops", or "feel". Usually, players will argue in favor of the one they have more of. Even though most people would, upon sober reflection, grant that both are important, that will not stop us from resuming the agrument immediately following said agreement!
Rather than trying to resolve this question, I would rather investigate something much more interesting: the relationship between musical expression and technique.
What Is Technique?
Let us define our terms: what is technique? Technique is what we do, and how we do it, to get what we want. This is why there is no such thing as "correct technique" in any ultimate sense of the word. Anything is "correct" if it gets us what we want, provided it is not going to prevent us from getting something else we want, or will want in the future.
And what is musical expression? It is to give outward, communicable form to an inner emotional awareness. It is to take what we are feeling in response to the music (the "im-pression" the music has made upon us) and to make someone else feel it through the medium of the music itself (to "ex-press" it). Of course, this presupposes that we ARE feeling something, just as "technique", the ability to get what we want, presupposes that we do want something, and that we know it when we get it. When we see these truths, we see that concern with finding which is more "important" is simply irrelevant to a real artist. All that is important is knowing what we want, knowing how to get it, and knowing when we do get it.
How Much Technique Do We Need?
The requirements of each style of music we play on the guitar are different. They range from the modest skills necessary to play folk guitar, to the advanced skills necessary to play the classical guitar, and from the standard licks of the blues player to the virtuoso techniques of a Vai, Satriani, or Malmsteen. No matter who we are, or what style we play, there is one essential truth regarding the relationship of our technique to our "feel", our musicality: our technique must be adequate to the requirements of our intended expression, and to the degree that it is, we will have the power to express ourselves musically. To the degree that our technique falls short, we will be limited in our musical expression. .
If my technique is not adequate, my ability to express my musical feeling will be hampered, perhaps destroyed. Like a person with a severe stutter, it will be hard to listen to what I say, and especially hard to simply relax into the feeling and meaning of my words. If I am an actor with a speech imdediment, it is not going to matter how much feeling I have for the character I am playing. The more congruent my technique is to my musical desires, the more completely are my desires able to be expressed. In fact, I will be able to feel even more, to discover even more of my own response to the music. To gain the technique we need to express our musical desires, after not having it, is like suddenly growing wings and being able to fly, after merely crawling, earthbound.
Spirit & Matter
This subject is essentially a form of the centuries old philosophical debate regarding spirit and matter. Great thinkers have postulated everything from the unreality of matter, with everything being spiritual in nature, to the strict materialist view that "matter" is the only reality, and mind, spirit, and other such fanciful terms are comforting illusions created, as an "epiphenomenom", by the whirl of atoms. Personally, I don't care, because it really doesn't affect my ability to play the guitar, one way or the other!
But, I find it useful to think in the dualistic terms of body and mind, of spirit and substance. I see them both as expressing one fundamental reality. Spirit expresses itself throgh matter, and that is how it communicates itself to the human mind. The vehicle or form through which spirit expresses itself we call a "body", such as a "governmental body", which conveys the will and spirit of a people in political and social terms, or the term we use to speak of an artists collected work, "a body of work" -that body of work expressing the spirit of the artist.. When it comes to playing music, "technique" is the body with which we express the will of our spirit. And just as our physical body can be healthy or handicapped, so can our guitar technique.
Is it possible to have good technique and little or no "feel"? Yes, or course. Just because the body exists does not mean it is being used to express spirit. There are many people walking around in bodies who are not feeling very much or expressing very much. This zombie approach to life can be applied to music as well; people can develop monster chops without having anything musical to say. People can learn to write voluminously, or speak rapidly and clearly, and even in a sophisticated manner, without actually having something to say (and many people do just that!). And there will always be audience members happy to clap enthusiastically for such musical acrobats, but I have never been one of them.
However, the opposite is not true, it is not possible to express musical feeling without technique adequate to the task. We may perhaps have the feeling inside, but we cannot give it outward form, so that it is usable and able to be recieved by someone else.
The Door Is Open
This is why my teaching work is concerned primarily with physical technique as opposed to musical expression. There is no point in dwelling on the musical aspects of someone's playing when they are not even able to physically produce the notes! Once someone begins to experience effortless playing, once the physical barriers have been removed, the spirit can flow, the spirit can expand, and most often does. Then, once the music has been given wings, it is time to talk about how perhaps to soar even higher. A good analogy is trying to teach an actor how to interpret and express Shakespeare, even though they have a severe stutter and can't utter a sentence without breaking down and mangling the words! Many guitar students cannot play through their music without constantly breaking down and mangling the notes. When this is the case, why talk about musical expression?
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