Saturday, 10 January 2009
Practising scales and technique. A waste of your time?
I confess to being a terrible student when I was a teenager. And among the things I hated most were practising scales, arpeggios and finger exercises. I could never see the point and somehow the assurance that it would make the boring classical music I was forced to play easier to execute gave scant solace.
As an improvising musician, in both jazz and non-jazz contexts, I usually need to know what sound I am going to make next. I am not belittling the use of chance and surprise both in improvisation and as a compositional tool. But if I am trying to support the actions of an actor, who is in turn responding to a live audience, then I need to know exactly how to create the sound I want. And this is where knowing my instrument becomes so important. And, fortunately or otherwise, one of the best ways to get to know an instrument is by practising scales and technical exercises.
However, beware believing them an end in themselves. Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold is the apt title of a song by The Bonzos. When playing a jazz solo, nothing disappoints me more than lifelessly running up and down perfectly executed scales. It's bland, lifeless and says, 'Hey! Listen to me, I have absolutely nothing to say!' It's jazz, disgusting cold. A great jazz solo is made by an inspired blend of imagination and technique. A wide vocabulary alone doesn't make an author but it can help to express meaning with accuracy. Similarly, mastery of an instrument doesn't guarantee a compelling performance but it does allow the performer to play whatever comes into their head. Not for nothing did John Coltrane practise constantly back-stage. You may not like what he played but you have to admire him for striving to express himself with integrity.
I find it far easier to convince my jazz students of the value of scales and arpeggios than I do my classical students. This probably says more about me than either group. But improvisation is composition on the fly and to compose you really need to know the instrument for which you write. Even at the most basic jam session, the better we know our instruments the happier we feel about the music we make.