Technique and Discovery

October 14, 2011

by Dave Cordes, guest blogger

This post was originally published at NEC’s entrepreneurial musicianship alumni blog on 10/13/2011, and is reposted here with permission from the author. IPAP thanks Dave Cordes for sharing this post.

On the first weekend of October, I witnessed the HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands.  Bands came from far and wide to perform at this free, outdoor festival in Davis and Harvard Squares. The groups were acoustic and mobile, made up largely of brass and percussion.  It was a delectable spectacle. It was a beautiful celebration.

The music I heard that weekend was emotively and kinetically moving. The bands shared with me their visceral joy in manifesting sound — the tangibility, the physicality, and texture of each sound.

This event made me think a lot about technique, and how we use technique as trained musicians.  Being in the presence of these powerful bands and their music made it clear to me that they had a much different relationship to technique than many of us at NEC.  These bands were unruly!  Notes were sometimes out of tune (this did not detract from the experience).  These musicians were expressing something very important through their presence and their sounds, and this thing did not depend on their playing each note with technical precision.

Playing in a HONK band demands its own type of virtuosity.  It demands a high level of collaborative skill and democratic decision making.  It demands the ability to bring audience members into the performance.  It demands vulnerability and risk-taking.  In these bands, virtuosity lies in the act of making yourself heard, and through that courageous act, cultivating courage in the people who hear and experience the joy of your sound and the fearlessness it represents.

This event made me reconsider my own relationship to technique on my main instrument, the double bass.  I know that technique allows me to express myself through my instrument in new ways.  Practicing approaches to bow technique and string crossings, for example, means that I can make sounds that I would not be able to make otherwise.  Developing technique on an instrument is as powerful as building vocabulary in a new language.  New technique gives me a wider palette of sonic possibility.

At the same time, fixation on technique can lead to creative paralysis.  It can feel like we don’t deserve to say anything until we know exactly what to say and how to say it — or, in music, that the sounds we create don’t deserve to be heard by others until they are perfect.

As an improviser, I perform to create authentic expression in each moment that I play, with the resources that I have on hand in that moment (and despite the limitations of the moment).  I can express the truth of who I am at a given time.  This ability is a great blessing for the improviser, and the blessing of improvised music for listeners.  What I hear in improvised music is human beings solving problems in real time.  In a group of improvisers, the group is negotiating solutions together.  Problems arise.  Conflicts threaten the unity of the collective.  The space is held and the musicians move through.  Quickly, slowly?  Densely or with space?  Registers juxtapose or correspond. It’s an active democracy.  It’s a model for living and playing together.

Performing improvised music is demanding.  There are no obvious parameters for success, and in this respect, it’s a fundamentally entrepreneurial musicianship.  I create my own opportunities and my own context for success or failure in each piece that I play, in each performance.  Improvised music asserts the necessity of life — of continually, perpetually, remaining alive to the world around us.

I felt the joy of recognition at HONK! in seeing other musicians defining success in their own way, in a way that felt familiar to me. To see this approach in these bands was inspiring and energizing.


You can read more from Dave and other authors writing about Entrepreneurial Musicianship at


One Response to “Technique and Discovery”

  1. buitendebox Says:

    Indeed, mastery is not about being technically perfect, but in the liberation of play, using the tools one has at one’s disposal in the moment.

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