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In an earlier post, I suggested that any student could impress his/her teacher by simply doing something (anything!) that was not assigned or required. Even just ask a good question! It’s mildly depressing that this is true – because almost no one does it. It’s really easy to stand out from the crowd by doing the simplest thing that no one has told you to do, thereby demonstrating the energy, inquisitiveness, and general moxie that the system has long since squeezed out of everyone. Yes, yes, I know, everyone has too much to do, barely enough time to do what’s assigned, let alone extra stuff. But the bar is really low here – all you have to do at minimum is do one thing not assigned all semester. Too much? Get your email twice a day (instead of 12 times an hour), cut down on web surfing, viral funny cat videos, and various incarnations of twitterface and anyone should have enough time to get started. The problem is not so much as a lack of time as it is a dearth of curiosity about stuff and capacity to entertain “failure” as the natural byproduct of exploration and trying out stuff to see what happens.

The system is rigged to produce people who get really good at storing up right answers. That’s where the rewards are until very late – i.e. at the end of studies or in the real world where curiosity and initiative are now the sine qua non of advancement. Your potential employer is now likely to ask, ok, so you got good grades: what else you got? Everybody has good grades. What did you do that makes you any different, makes you any kind of special?

If you teach in higher ed, you learn very quickly that much of the reason they are going to keep you (tenure) or not has to do with how much stuff you did that no one told you to do. Anyone who just does the job is going to fall way short. You have to be very active in making all kinds of things happen, stuff that nobody set up for you or asked (specifically) of you or told you to do.

It’s similar (though perhaps not as obvious) in other professions.

Which makes you think: why didn’t someone tell me about this way back when?

The answer, of course, is one you’ve heard me rant about before: because creativity is messy. It’s easier to hand out right answers and say: “memorize, spit back” than it is to turn someone loose and say, “Explore. Experiment. Get dirty. See what you come up with.” Pre-school or kindergarten is about the last time this happens. With everyone mandated to learn standard things and time slot scheduled up to the eyeballs, it’s tough to have any off-the-leash time. Homeschooling is sounding better all the time.

This is all preamble to what I wanted to think out loud about today: off-the-leash time in music.

Every musician was comfortable improvising until the Romantic Era, which just a little bit after the rise of the conservatory (in Paris, in 1795) and the written method book (the Paris conservatory profs loved to churn them out) – coincidence? The 20th century advanced standardized everything in approaches and equipment. So everyone got really really good at certain things. Focus narrowed, routines were prescribed, players got really good at them.

It’s a nice feeling to get really good at something. But if it’s just that one thing, that one routine that becomes your Groundhog Day routine (see the movie), then something else is also happening, besides you getting really good at this thing: you are slowly dying, musically and even technically.

The human spirit thrives on change and challenge. We all struggle mightily for security in our situations, but once achieved, we grow bored, sour, cynical, restless, sad (not unlike any animal in the zoo without ‘toys’). Inventors who make millions on a new invention and then retire may not find any happiness in the new life of ease unless they go back to some kind of square one and start again and savor the new challenge. Many lottery winners lives’ are ruined by the sudden advent of infinite security. No challenge, no life, no fun.

So the challenge for musicians at all levels is what to do after you have conquered some level of technique. Easiest is simply to Groundhog it and stay there forever. Hey, you’ve gotten really good at that morning routine. You sound great, your ego is soothed, why change?

It’s just not that interesting after a while, is all. What to do?

Time for something different. Not a lot. Just a bit. Always just a bit.

Take scales. Someone way back when decided that we should only practice scales in octaves. And as many as possible. If one is good, then two or three are even better.  Makes sense in one sense, doesn’t it. An octave is a collection of all the tones in a scale (plus a repeat of the tonic at the octave). Shouldn’t the collection of all the pitches be the standard practice unit? Isn’t bigger better? Makes you think… Why do we start kids on a, and, the, I, you, it, etc. instead of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiolis? Shouldn’t our first words in German 101 be words like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz or Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft? Or: why learn sentences that don’t have all the letters in the alphabet?

Nothing wrong with octaves, but when they are the only way to know scales, we miss out a lot, such as what music is like, mostly. The absurdity of the general premise is clear when applied to language study, but apparently not so among musicians. Octaves reign. We get good at them and that’s about all we do. One. Two. Three octaves. Same scales, same routine, repeat and repeat. Every day is Groundhog day until that fine day that we are so sick of them that we stop practicing them. Or…

To make life and work exciting again, all you have to do to get back that rush you used to have is add an additional challenge, something you can’t quite do. For scales, instead of playing that octave or those octaves the same lengths the same tempo every day, put some pep back in your step by trying any of the following:

Speed it up. Do the same thing. But crank up the tempo a notch. And again, another notch. Repeat…

Change the articulation. Single tongue everything until you reach your speed limit. Repeat with double and triple tongue. Then mix slurring and tonging (e.g. 2 and 2), and finally slur all. Discover and bump up against your speed limits in all types of articulation.

Shorten it. The biggest problem about two and three octave scales is that they don’t actually occur in nature (at least I’ve never seen a piece for horn that has a two or three octave scale). Even one octave scales are not that frequent. We should start by learning short scales (3 notes) of all types (e.g. 1 2 3, 1 2 b3, 1 b2 b3, 1 b2 3 = Core Scales). In all keys. Memorized. Learn them until they are second nature at great speeds. Then 5-note scales (Power Scales: 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 b3 4 5, 1 b2 b3 4 5, 1 b2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 #4 5), ditto. Shorter bits of scales are what music looks like. We should be hitting scales like these early and often. And when we have developed excellent proficiency in them, then build the longer scales from these basic shorter units. I’ve watch a lot of players struggle when they try to pass proficiency tests playing long scales; all it takes is the stress of the exam to cause one flub, and they are lost and have to start over. Rote memorization of long scales is like learning lists of random numbers or memorizing phrases in a foreign language that you don’t speak. It’s memorization without meaning and the memorizer has no flexibility – it’s all or nothing. It’s hard to build those long scales into your DNA so that they’re there when you’re under pressure (not that you will ever have to play them again outside of exams like these), and it’s easy to get lost. [I’ve revised the way the horns are tested: they learn smaller units first and then are tested on scales to the ninth (= two Power Scales) in all keys and there is a time limit. Horn players who have come through this system invariably rip through all scales very quickly without hesitation.

Add some jive. Once you can play all scales fluently using one note value (e.g. 8ths), it’s time to live a little: make the recitation into something a lot more musical and fun by varying the note lengths and adding silence (rests).

Add accents. Accents are like salt and peppper – they make bland offerings come alive. Change your passionless groundhog scales by adding accents every four 8ths. Every three 8ths. Now: 3 +2. 2 +3. 2 + 2 + 3. 3 + 2 + 2. Try the calypso beat: 3 + 3 + 2. Grab a partner and play two different ones against each other. What the heck, do it again but each pick your own scale type and key. Add another player, make it a trio. Try your scales as a canon.

Other stuff. Start the scales as a pickup. Or on the ‘and’ of one.

To put some glide back in your stride, revisit those groundhog scales and do something (anything!) to them, make them a little different, a little more challenging. Stretch your limits! And savor the feeling once again of not quite being able to do something – and go after it. You will be a happier and more flexible musician for the effort.

You won’t find (m)any books that write out all these things. You have to play what’s not there to reap the benefits to your newly extended capabilities. To say nothing of getting some fun back in your musical life.