Technique Over Substance

To acquire greatness in a given field, especially where a certain amount of physicality is required, one must have great technique. This goes for sports men, Michaels Jordan & Johnson, Roger Federer, Joe Calzaghe, as well as musicians and artists. In order to box, hit a tennis ball, play a musical instrument or paint a picture, at any level, some technique is required and it is these technical skills that provide the foundation for the given pursuit. Without any technical ability one simply would not be able to do what one set out to do. So as far as fundamentals go the study of technique is crucial to progression, but despite what advantages talent might give you it does require work and desire, if it was easy then everyone would be good at everything.

But is it simply great or superior technique that establishes one in the realms of greatness? It certainly helps, but the fundamental answer has to be no. It is not the only thing and this is more obvious when you talk with regard to musicians and artists, because it is clearer to see that it is the application of technique, not technique of itself, which results in artistry. In this case, technique is a means to an end and not the end in its self.

When we talk about the technical aspects of being a musician, we often talk about great chops. The study of technique provides the necessary dexterity and strength to play the given instrument, but the study of technique also covers the area of co-ordination, especially when we talk about drummers. What we are aiming for, especially as jazz musicians, is to have the ability to go anywhere, play anything and to be released from the physical and sometimes mental constraints of playing the instrument.

There is, though, a danger in over emphasizing technique, in taking technique over substance. We study technique to such a large degree that it becomes all consuming, I wonder if it is not something that plays to the ego, and we forget about the bigger picture of making music, something I am sure we have all been guilty of to a greater or lesser degree. When technique has become too much of a focus for any artist, musical or otherwise, the art loses its soul, it has no heart. Unfortunately there have been more than one or two, some of whom might be called legendary drummers (I know more about drumming than other instruments, but I am sure the same thing happens in other musical disciplines), who whilst being technically brilliant have, perhaps lazily, fallen into this trap, relying on technique and at times rather lacking in musical taste!

If we actually think about painting a picture, the pure technique of painting with a brush is not going to get you very far and that brush technique is never going to be an end in and of its self. The painting is the end result and this is the product of the correct application of different brush strokes to fulfil an artistic vision. It still has to be said that a technically brilliant picture does not guarantee that it is artistically brilliant, this does have more to do with artistic vision than technique. So the vision, the soul, the heart of the painting rises above the constraints or otherwise of technique. The technique should, when looking at a picture, be invisible. The same should be true in music.

Bruce Lee, in reference to martial arts, talked about the formless form. The concept of, in a sense, forgetting all the technique that one had learnt and just expressing and adapting yourself to a given situation. The same is true of the arts for in its purest form it is self expression. It is definitely true for drummers and musicians, especially in a jazz context. We are pursuing the formless form, forgetting all that technique we have learnt, making it invisible, expressing and adapting to the other musicians around us and in a Zen like way aiming for a oneness, a completeness, with the music. Substance over technique.

December 2008

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