Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Practice your vegetables!

Of the hundreds of fun arguments piano teachers can get into, one of them predictably involves the playing of scales. Most teachers would stress their importance, and most students would prefer not to play any. They aren't much fun, after all. And many a student has quit, partly in frustration over the amount of technical exercises required. Recently I read a blog in which a musician recommended about an hour of technical exercises every day, to which I had the natural student reaction: wow! How are you going to have any time to practice actual music? And, wow, would that be a dull hour! Only I'm not a student. I'm a professional.

After that it just seemed liked too much fun to start my first music-making related blog by confessing to this rank heresy of mine: I don't play scales in the morning. Or ever--well, hardly ever.

I ought to clarify that a bit for people who would like to take my confession as ironclad proof that scales are worthless. I have been playing the piano for over thirty years, and during my student days there was a period when I spent time every day playing scales and technical exercises (like Czerny or Hanon). And if a scale shows up in a piece of music that I'm playing, I can execute it cleanly and quickly. If you can't, then maybe you don't get off so easily.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that both of us probably don't like about scales, and that is the mindless, repetitive nature of the beasts. In order to combat that, I want to approach these ubiquitous warm ups with a simple question: Why? What are these things really for, anyway? Here's what I've come up with:

They stretch your muscles: If this is the only reason to play scales, you may not need them. Depending on what you are playing, it might not be that necessary to get limber, particularly for an hour. I don't stretch my muscles when I go for a 13 mile run, which is supposed to be another sin, but that is because my muscles stretch while I'm running, and I'm not in danger of tearing them because I don't go full out right from the start--or at all. I'm pacing myself because it's a long run. On the other hand, if I were going for a sprint you'd better believe I'd want to be fully stretched. If you are going to be playing rapid passage work, you'll want to be limber, or you really could hurt yourself. Fingers are muscles, too.

They teach you how to play scales: This also sounds like a pretty useless, or insular, gain, but occasionally  scales pop up in pieces of music, and knowing them means having a part of the music that comes ready-made. You shouldn't have to think about a four-octave E major scale in the middle of a sonata, you should be able to say "Oh, that's just a 4-octave E major scale" and get on with your business without having to learn it from scratch. A scale takes a series of notes and makes one unified musical gesture out of them (or one comprehensible unit for the mind), the way a series of letters become words and words become phrases. A scale is a way to think on a macro-level. While the average piece of music may not have any scales in it at all, or only a few, this is one of the few patterns that will predictably appear in the literature, particularly during the classical period. That's because rapid runs became the fashion once the piano facilitated them, titillating the ears of composers and listeners alike, which brings us to the next reason for being able to play them quickly and easily:

They sound cool. No justification is forthcoming on this point, nor is it necessary!

They teach patterns, including automatic fingerings (which will come in handy later when playing unfamiliar literature), and make the special topographical feel of each key familiar. Knowing an A major scale should help with the all-important orientation of rises and falls (sharps and naturals) of any music in A major. Since you probably aren't going to be playing in A major every week for the rest of your life (there are 12 major and 12 minor keys, after all, plus enharmonic equivalents, and the odds are you aren't going to be working on 24 pieces at once), a warm-up scale may be a reminder of how the pattern, the feel, of a key works even when you aren't playing music in that key. The problem there is that while a scale should lead us to be able to think fluently in that key (it really slows you down if you have to remind yourself the C is sharped every time you get to it), if it only remains a static pattern that you use as a routine warm-up exercise  it may shut off your mind instead of waking it up. In which case you need to go from theory to application. Some suggestions:

Rather than playing the scale the same way each time, try starting on different notes within the scale (say, the third note) and playing an octave or two, using a variety of notes of the scale as the beginning and end points. That way, you'll have to think about what you are doing, and how the pattern of hills and valleys fits into it.Change direction frequently, and zigzag your way up and down the scale. Also try patterns like 121232343454 etc. preserving the same thumb crossings. (or 1324354657 etc.)

For me, improvisation in each key really helped me to think in each key far more than scales ever did. Even if the idea of making up your own tune scares the pants off you, you should be able to make up your own single line melodies in different keys: choose one a week, and improvise in it for several days as needed until a key starts to feel like an old friend, rather than a bunch of sharps and flats you can barely remember.

These last thoughts take scales from being great ways to flex the muscles but turn off the mind, and turns them into patterns that are present everywhere in music, in melody, harmony, and rhythm. My dictum is that five minutes of practice with your brain switched on is worth an hour of mindless repetition. It isn't that repetition isn't absolutely vital; it's that getting your brain involved will cut your practice time greatly, not to mention making your playing more meaningful.


  1. I'd just like to put in a good word for scales, as Sunday one of the praise songs we sang had a lovely descending scale of some kind for the phrase "Du bist heilig" (You are holy).

  2. They don't all have to sound like hard work and no play, I guess. And sometimes, they can even be..gasp...wonderful to listen to!


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