I used to resist practicing scales.
My teacher thought they wee important, but I just couldn’t see it. Playing music – heck, even practicing music – was so much more interesting. Plus, when I was done practicing music, I had something to show for it, a piece I could play. Who wants to listen to scales?
I had all the excuses too. And then I learned better.
If you’re reluctant to spend time and energy practicing your scales, I urge you to reconsider. All I ask is that you read the “top 10” list below and see if any of those reasons NOT to practice scales are yours. I’ve tried to provide strong evidence to help convince you to change your thinking.
And if you’re a teacher whose students struggle with scales, the list below may provide you with some extra talking points.
You must be practicing them incorrectly. In the words of famed flutist James Galway, “Scales played in the correct musical way are...
Are you in the technique trap?
Maybe you have managed to escape the trap, or maybe you just don’t yet know you’re in it.
What is the technique trap? It’s the practice path that turns out not to be a path at all, but a circle that leads nowhere new.
Perhaps this sounds familiar…You slog away at your technical practice – scales, exercises, etudes – with the expectation of good results. You know it will take time to develop your skills, but you have confidence that over time you will see progress. But should it really take this long?
Over time, that situation leads you to the next level of the trap. You still spend time at your technique practice but your heart isn’t in it. Everyone tells you that you need to do this work, but you seem to get more done when you just practice your pieces. Besides, scales and exercises aren’t real music anyway.
Or perhaps you’ve reached the lowest level of the trap, where you’ve...
Do you think you know what the essential elements of technique are?
I used to think I did. From early on in my harp studies, they were drilled into my head, if not always into my fingers; elbows, wrists in, thumbs up, etc. I learned what amounted to a complete catechism of the points of harp technique.
Lately, however, I’ve been considering technique from a wider perspective. What if technique could be described in a way that would be applicable to any musical instrument? Are there basic technical requirements, essential elements, that supersede instrument-specific points?
Assuming that the goal of any technique, no matter the instrument (and of course, this includes the voice), is to foster more adept and expressive music performance, then the aims of technical development must be identical too.
I have identified four essential elements of technique, overarching concepts that reveal the true purpose of technical study. What is interesting about them is that they are...
"Be sure to listen!"
This was my teacher's final piece of advice before I played my first orchestra rehearsal. I was only 12, and I was playing with a local community orchestra. I was a little nervous. All the other players were grown-ups. The part I was playing was unfamiliar, but back then every orchestra part was unfamiliar. Adding to my discomfort was the conductor’s heavy German accent and the fact that he addressed me only as "leetle girrrl."
I would have loved to listen, but I was too uncomfortable and inexperienced to do more than pray that I would come in at the right time.
Unnerving as it was, the whole experience taught me to listen. Even better, over time I learned the skills I needed to become a constant and reliable ensemble player. I learned to listen like a superhero.
If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, you know that the superhero Wolverine is a mutant who possesses a set of amazing retractable claws and ultra-keen senses, including a fantastic sense of...
Are you not practicing today?
Those are the most powerful words that anyone can ever say to me. They are the ultimate reminder – or possible kick in the pants - that as a musician my job is to practice. Daily.
When is it okay not to practice? Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method, had a very clear philosophy. When he was asked by his young students when they should practice, his reply was invariably, “Only on the days you eat.” Of course, that's a rule more suited to creating proper habits in young students than to adult students with busy schedules and myriad responsibilities.
Whether you're an amateur musician or a professional musician, you understand that practice is important. If you don't practice, you don't make progress. So how do you balance all the responsibilities and schedule upheavals that happen in a typical week? When is it safe to skip your practice, and when do you really need to practice anyway?
My answer might surprise you. I...
Do you love your thumbs?
We harpists have a love/hate relationship with our thumbs. They can carry the melody well with their power. But they can also be a weak link in scales and arpeggios. They have a knack for being too loud when we need them to blend and too weak when we want them to be beautiful.
Thumbs play several crucial roles in our playing. Physically, they balance and stabilize our hand. Have you ever tried playing a scale without using your thumb? Try it and you will see instantly how much you rely on your thumb just to keep your hand steady.
Our right thumb is our “melody finger,” so it must have a variety of tone colors and a full range of dynamics. Developing an expressive melody line starts with developing an expressive thumb.
Thumbs link chunks of scales or arpeggios when we cross under or over. In these moments, accuracy, stability and even tone are all required from our thumbs.
Our thumbs also anchor octaves and chords, and play harmonics and trills....
Are you moving up, making progress? Or do you feel like you’re going in circles?
I always visualize progress as ascending a spiral staircase. You move upward, but in a sort of circular way. You keep working on the same skills but at increasingly higher levels.
Beginners practice scales. Virtuoso performers practice scales, too, but theirs are usually faster, more fluid, more athletic. It’s easy to see the results of years of practice.
Although it’s easy to tell the scales of a beginner from those of a professional, it’s not always easy to tell if you’re making progress, moving forward, moving up. Sometimes it feels like your practice is just taking you over the same ground over and over again.
So how can you tell? Usually we look to our repertoire to see if we are making progress. It’s an easy way, if not a totally accurate one, to measure our accomplishment.
If you’re making progress your repertoire will show it in three distinct ways:
Ambition is not just the property of the young and upwardly mobile. It isn’t exclusive to those destined to be superstars. Ambition is a natural part of the human condition.
It is sometimes viewed as prideful, immoderate, immodest, overbearing or selfish. But it is more properly cast in a neutral role: ambition is what you do with it.
When was the last time you thought about your ambitions, gave your thoughts over to your dreams without regard for probability, just enjoying the idea of the possible?
At least once a week, I receive an email from a harp student who is concerned about whether “it’s too late” for her to become the harpist she wants to be. She is nearly ready to give up on her dreams because she fears she doesn’t have enough talent, her fingers are too slow or she’s too old.
Most often, she has been caught up in one or more of three limiting beliefs, false beliefs which can kill even the strongest ambition.
Focus is the difference between whiffing and missing the ball or hitting it out of the park.
I am finally starting to believe that spring is on its way. We still have snow in our yard, but the sun feels stronger and the scent in the air has changed. And baseball opening day is this week.
When baseball season starts, summer can’t be too far behind. Soon major league stadiums, community parks and backyards across the country will be fields of dreams for players and fans young and old. Parents everywhere will be encouraging their young players, saying, “Keep your eye on the ball!”
A batter must stay focused on that ball to hit it. There is only a split second when the ball crosses the plate. If the batter has been watching the ball, the bat will be coming across the plate at the right moment and in the right place to connect with the ball. If the batter hasn’t been focused on the ball, the swing will fan the air and he’ll be out at the plate.
Do you understand “deliberate practice?” If you don’t you’re not alone.
Much has been written about deliberate practice since K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State University, first wrote about it in the 1990’s. Ericsson’s research led him to the conclusion that it was not so much innate ability that led the highest achievers to their success but was more a product of the work they did to get there. And specifically, the way in which they worked. That was what he termed “deliberate practice.”
Since then, bookstore shelves have displayed more books on this topic every year, each book promising to lead us to the success we crave by showing us the path.
At the risk of adding to the clutter, I would like to offer a brief practical look at some of the most basic elements of deliberate practice and how you can use them to each and every day in the work you do – whether it’s music practice or...