People are impressed by a display of technique, but what is more impressive of course is when technique is not displayed. As a student I admired greatly the tense sinewy arms and fingers exhibited by many bassists and the furrowed brow and gritted teeth that went with a manly approach to bass-playing. In fact, aches and pains in limbs and back were badges of honour, as was having a lop-sided frame with misaligned hips and shoulders. Abrupt, mechanical shifts and a rigidly positioned left hand showed discipline and demonstrated your commitment to conquering this beast. It was easy to be impressed and to inadvertently emulate this approach.
But It dawned on me after concluding my formal education that I had misunderstood the essence of technique: technique is not to allow you to play hard things but rather to make hard things easy (a subtle but very significant shift of emphasis). This ought to have been obvious, maybe; and if not, it ought to have been pointed out. Fine string players never seem to be having difficulty, and virtuoso rock guitarists have to remember to pull faces to remind the impressionable audience that what they are doing is tricky. Technique should be invisible and fluid, more about losing unwanted movements than adding required ones. An easy manner will minimise the instrument’s role in determining what is communicated; focus should be on the message, not the medium. You can of course stick out your tongue and frown for effect…
When I was little, my parents recall me pestering them for a unicycle. They didn’t know I was serious (neither did I, really) but when I came across the right one for me in a circus shop in France this summer, my wife didn’t try to dissuade me: she could see I was determined. So I got it – a shiny minimalist icon – and failed to get to grips with it at all. Dismantled and packed deep in the car, it would have to wait til I got home for some serious attention.
Several youTube tutorials later, I began in earnest once the kids were back at school. I fell off a lot and faced the distressing possibility that I was too old (or just too uncoordinated) to get the hang of the thing. But within a few weeks I was trundling along merrily, my joy exponentially enhanced by its being the realisation of a lifelong ambition.
What I didn’t expect was that it would be so physically and psychologically beneficial. It seems to me to be a discipline very much along the lines of Pilates and Feldenkrais. The abdominal muscles are engaged, the back straight and the hips aligned. It requires fully intuitive and dynamic balance involving every part of the body. Feldenkrais’ method aims to “make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant”: this describes perfectly the business of learning to unicycle and could usefully be adopted as a motto for life. Or, put another way, riding a unicycle is a guide to successful living.
Today I began a project with two ICO string colleagues and a saxophonist, Cathal Roche. The setting is the age-related day hospital in Tallaght, and Ian Wilson is composing for the group a piece inspired by his meetings with staff and patients of the dementia unit. (This follows from a fantastic 2010 project in the stroke unit which resulted in a CD called Bewitched.) We played the first movement of it, and it was great. But first we played a bunch of stuff from the random gig folder, a lot of it baroque. The soprano sax instantly became a cornetto, almost precisely!
Curiously, I had a similar thought in the opposite direction when playing late-Beethoven with a period band (historical instruments). The classical bassoon in its highest register is a fabulous, raucous sound like a saxophone letting rip. When we hear these things played on modern instruments, the effect is much less extreme. It can be hard to do justice to the composer’s ideas when your (modern) instrument and technique make things easier than intended! The bassoon at the beginning of the Rite of Spring; the bass solo in Mahler 1. The objective of playing the written notes as well as possible doesn’t necessarily align with the objective of playing the music right. The music is not on the page, as any saxophone player will tell you.