Getting the Job Done

When I was a freshman in college, I went with a group of fellow guitar students to see Fred Hand perform a concert. He held the instrument on his right leg, his left hand had so much extraneous movement that it looked like an anxious spider, and he played most of his scales with his right hand index finger. He moved around wildly, made strange faces, and talked alot. At that time, I was obsessed with building the perfect technique:  sitting in an absolutely perfect manner, holding my hands in the most efficient position possible, moving precisely from the correct joints and in the correct direction, and eradicating every tiny bit of tension from my body. As I was listening to the concert, I felt guilty for enjoying his playing so much because I could not condone the way he played. His technique looked horrible to me; it was contrary to everything I had been taught.  I thought he was doing it all wrong. It was as if I wasn’t even listening to or feeling what was he was doing. I might as well have been deaf.

When we’re building our technique, we often use the words “right” or “correct” to describe a certain way of sitting, positioning, or moving. I’m not sure that there is a wrong way to play guitar, and I’m absolutely certain that there is more than one right way. My favorite players all look as if they are using vastly different technique. I’m assuming that they might even have different (maybe even contradictory) ideas about how to use the mechanism of the body to play guitar. They are all incredible virtuosos and have great tone. Who is right?

The other point that comes to mind when I think about these things is that I’ve played with many non-classical musicians, and I’ve never heard any of them talk about their technique, much less a right or wrong way to play. Folk musicians in particular seem to really be immune to this way of thinking. They don’t really talk much about how to play; they just play. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

When thinking about or working on your technique, don’t lose sight of the object of your work:  to play music. Find a way to achieve what you are trying to hear and feel that works for you. Your teacher’s (or anyone else’s) ideas can be helpful to you, if you understand them and they work for you. If an idea doesn’t make sense, or if it cannot be satisfactorily explained, or if it just doesn’t work for you, then find one that does.

I once heard a great musician say, “technique is whatever it takes to get the job done.”   Keep your focus on the job of playing music that is beautiful, exciting, expressive, and fun.

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