I grew up playing the trumpet. For me, trumpet technique is all about perfecting a few, incredibly difficult tasks. Playing a single note perfectly is nearly impossible. Practice was all about slowly chipping away at the mythical “perfect note”, sculpting a beautiful sound or a perfect articulation.
When I started to play piano, I tried to practice this way. Initially, I made very quick progress but soon hit a dead end. My way of practicing just wasn’t working, in some cases it was actually making things worse. That’s because piano technique is not about mastering a handful of incredibly difficult tasks. Unlike the trumpet, playing a note on the piano is the easiest thing in the world. With your eyes closed, a single note will sound the same if played by a cat, a toddler, a dropped object on the keyboard, or Rachmaninoff himself.
Piano technique is about coordinating dozens, or even hundreds of extremely simple tasks all occurring at once and one after the other. On the trumpet I’d coordinate three or four very hard actions at one time, but even the simplest piano pieces require juggling a dozen very easy things. That, coupled with the fact that the piano is extremely visual — everything is there, in plain sight! — meant that piano technique required a different approach. Its technique involves breaking a problem down into its simplest components and then putting them back together. It’d be very silly to improve trumpet technique by vibrating one lip and then the other, but in the case of piano technique there are cases where you really need to break down a problem into such absurdly tiny elements.
As conducting and singing become a bigger part of my life, I’ve struggled with an entirely different type of technique. In both cases, the “piano” and the “trumpet” approaches have not given me good results. The “trumpet” approach to technique involved learning an incredibly difficult task that I did not know how to do naturally; one learns through self-training, repetition, and exercise. The “piano” approach that best worked for me involved intense analysis of a problem and coordinating many very easy tasks in the most direct way possible; one learns through organization and coordination.
Singing and conducting technique are very similar. Both involve tasks that we do naturally from the moment we are born, moving our arms and using our vocal chords (I have plenty of memories of my three-month old son screaming at an intense volume and very high pitch non-stop for two or three hours without damaging his vocal chords to know what the human voice can do when used naturally.) Barring some kind of physical problem, our bodies are machines designed for breathing and moving. Unfortunately, the fact that we use our speech and bodies constantly also works against us; bad habits have a way of creeping in as we go through life. In both cases, there is an element of “remembering” the right way of doing things. Curiously enough, most of my breakthroughs have come from finding an association, a “magic button” that helps concepts make sense and tuning in with how the body wants to work (of course, you need to practice so that those breakthroughs will happen… I am not advocating that students stop practicing.)
The “conducting-singing” approach to technique doesn’t attack technical problems head on, trying to wear them down through exercise or break them down through intense analysis. One learns by realizing that most technique problems come from ourselves, working around them, and having the wisdom to understand that they will go away in due time, as long as we are conscious of the right way of doing things and fixing the things that we can fix at that particular moment.
These are not particularly bad ways of approaching life’s problems. Sometimes I’ll come up against a situation where I’ll ask myself: is this a trumpet problem or a piano problem? If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from singing and conducting is that there’s a third option that is equally valid: working around the obstacle and trusting that it’s mostly in my head and will go away if I leave it alone.