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.

1 comment:

  1. This response was sent to me by Gemma Khawaja, (email address supplied on request)

    I enjoyed reading your posts though- particularly interesting is the practising scales/arpeggios and technical aspects 'versus' allowing creativity to flourish- can one element exist without the other? the technical elements (which I call 'music science' as it all consists of things that hurt my head to comprehend'!) seem a bit sad and pointless when viewed 'in a vacuum' without a creative follow on but when trying to teach myself guitar through learning chords and imitating through listening alone- (and shunning scales and 'classical' techniques)- I found my creativity quickly reached a dead end without knowledge or grounding in (technical) ways to proceed. However- I was able to realise that myself and now have guitar lessons where I happily learn about modal progressions and pentatonic scales as I want to progress. If I began here, I think I would have lost interest because I doubt I would've seen how it fits into the bigger picture- or how it would help me play my favourite pop song of the moment. It's an interesting area- my sister used to play the flute as a teenager and used to liken music theory to 'wading through treacle' even though she was very good at it. all the pieces she played were classical and she achieved grade 8 playing standard in a very short space of time, taught herself to read music, sailed through grade 5 theory and was great at technical aspects but sadly I don't think I ever heard her improvise or try her hand at anything other than classical pieces- Syrinx- is still in my head 20 years on! I never heard her try jazz, folk or even try composition once and now she rarely even plays a note.

    This music thing is more tricky than I thought! I guess a healthy balance is needed!