Instrumental Technique – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Here is an interesting essay by Steven Thompson, writing for NPR. He was asked by a listener about bands and musicians that feature a virtuoso performer, noting that some musicians are known for exceptional technique, but uninteresting music. Thompson replies:

Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.

I think what you’re getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they’re not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that’s a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn’t necessary to form “a sound defense,” though you’re likely to hear “technical ability” paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn’t simple.

Although the examples Thompson discusses are rock musicians, there are similar things that have been said of jazz and classical musicians as well. For example, many jazz fans dislike Maynard Ferguson’s music because they find his high note trumpet playing to be overwhelming. Talk with some orchestral fans and you will hear them compare one orchestra as being “technically superior, but musically lacking.”

It’s an interesting discussion. At what point does instrumental technique become musically unsatisfying? I think everyone would probably agree that up to a certain point, instrumental technique is necessary for a quality musical performance, however there is a certain point where it may become more like juggling (look at how well I can play my instrument) rather than an expressive performance. Perhaps there is a sort of a “bell curve” of instrumental facility where at some point showing off technique ceases to be musical. Or, more likely, the amazement we get from hearing a virtuoso musician perform diminishes quickly so that the player’s chops become less interesting to us, leaving us feeling unsatisfied if there isn’t expressive musicianship also.

Frankly, I think it’s not so much the instrumental technique that is the issue, but rather the lack of musicality in certain virtuoso players. When a musician’s technique is in service of the expression I personally forget about the virtuosic technique and find myself more focused on the spirit and mood of the music. When the playing is done more to show off (higher, faster, louder), then it just comes across as immature, to me. Thompson concludes similarly.

Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it’s rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.

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