(To get the most from this post, please also read last week’s post.)

For those who play an acoustic stringed instrument, the term “technique” refers to the way we use our hands to play. Good technique produces the melding of four elements:

  1. optimal relaxation of the hands through good ergonomics of the hands and arms
  2. optimal tone
  3. optimal accuracy
  4. optimal smoothness, speed, and expression

For each type of instrument, there is no single technique that works for everyone, because each person’s hands are different. Your fingers may be longer or shorter than average; your thumb may be a different length than someone else’s, and the thumbnail may oriented at a different angle to the hand. The palm of your hand may be narrow or wide. Your knuckles might collapse, bend both ways, or whatever. Individual differences are endless. Strangely, these differences often aren’t considered.

If someone has had to work hard on their technique, they’ll have an investment in its being the “only right one”. There would be many more excellent musicians in the world if more teachers individualized technique for each student’s needs. That said, there are students who don’t learn what they’re taught. The relationship between student and teacher is not 50-50; it’s 100-100. Both have to give it 100% in order for learning to be successful.

Individualizing technique doesn’t mean re-inventing a new method for each student; it simply means being well versed in all the accepted methods and being able to identify which one is best suited, and then tweaking it if necessary.

Some folk musicians are self-taught and have no technical training. Some get pretty good at what they do, but think of this: if they had technical training as well, they’d be even better. Why not be the best you can be?

When you seek a teacher, check out their reputation. Beware of the minimally qualified; lack of technique will limit your skill development, and once you form poor habits, it’s hard to break them. On the other hand, you can learn from more than one teacher; each will have something of value to offer. Learning more than one technique will not ruin what you already know. (If you had a vocabulary of 1000 words, would learning another 1000 words make you forget the first 1000? Of course not.)

Let’s look at the three elements I listed in the first paragraph:

  1. Ergonomics of the hands and arms can be described as having two elements:
  2. Most new hand positions and motions don’t feel natural at first, but should become comfortable after a few weeks. There should be no tension in the hands, and no discomfort. Relaxed playing produces smoothness and flow in the music.
  3. When you’ve learned to relax the hands and have comfortable ergonomic hand position and movements, you’ll automatically begin to develop kinesthetics (memorizing the feeling of distances and intervals of placements of note groupings, phrases and chords, and developing muscle memory). This allows you to play without having to think consciously about every note. (We can’t rely on the conscious mind to stay on top of every note we play; we must have muscle memory. Without it, music sounds choppy and halting.)


2. Tone also has two elements:

a. quality of sound and volume.

b. dynamic expression (loud and soft). Consider how much you paid for your instrument. If you have, say, a $2000 instrument, and you are only getting a $200 sound out of it, you need to learn a better technique.


3. Accuracy has three elements:

a. Minimal mistakes (If, no matter how much you practice, you still make too many mistakes, the good news is that you are not inept, only that your technique needs help.)

b. Clarity  – every note is audible (without skips, flubs or plunks); what’s in your head actually comes out your fingers.

c. Your eyes are free so you don’t have to watch your fingers play, and can therefore rely on kinesthetics.


4. Smoothness, speed and expression are outgrowths of all of the above factors.


(Sorry about the formatting above; WordPress has a mind of its own.)

Because technique should be individualized, how will you know if the technique you’ve been taught is a good one for you? The answer lies in results. Give a good, honest try to the technique you’re taught, without resisting or changing what you’re asked to do. If after a few months you are not progressing, then it’s not the best technique for you. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll find your playing has improved. One good way to measure your progress is to record yourself playing before you start learning the new technique, and then again after two months of focused practice, and compare the new recording with the old. You may be amazed!

I like to encourage all musicians to keep learning, even after you think you’ve “arrived”. People often ask me how long it will take to learn to play a certain instrument. The truth is, it may take only a few months to learn the basics, but after that, progress is life-long.  The best musicians know there is no end to progress; no matter how good you get, there’s always further to go, and that’s why playing an instrument is so fulfilling.


Next week: More about Modes