I was recently on an arts panel judging musical acts that ranged from one of the best-known orchestras in the world to a protest folksinger and all points in between. I can’t mention the names because the process is still in progress. On the panel were classical musicians, scholars and academics, one world music expert, one well-known jazz musician and me, who was the generalist of the group. It was fascinating listening to music through other people’s ears. All of the panelists, were broadly knowledgeable and had open minds to music outside their areas of expertise. But two attributes they were all seeking were a certain virtuosity and authenticity in the playing. By that I don’t mean Paganini-like technical wizardry or Delta blues dustiness, but a skill and precision within whatever style music the artist was playing that allowed them to bring the spirit of the music through with clarity. This came to mind listening to a new George Winston CD, Gulf Coast Blues.
When Winston is playing in his “folk-piano” style, he has a certain feel and expression that is unmistakable and unique. His skills seem suited to the long ring-outs, modal themes and avant-garde touches like playing inside the piano. But when he starts playing stride piano, dance tunes and jazz, you hear the flaws in his technique, the clumsy sense of time and the inability of his fingers to keep pace with his mind. Instead of serving the music he loves, he leaves you with an uneasy feeling that doesn’t do his inspirations justice.
I often hear unschooled musicians disparaging technique and many artists trumpet the fact that they were self-taught, considering it a virtue because they weren’t “limited” by conventional methods and could find their own, unique mode of expression. But when an artist is making muffs, sliding off time and drifting in intonation, these aren’t merits, but a lack of technique that gets in the way of musical expression.