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English: Child's hands resting on a piano keyboard

We will bounce back and forth between valveless and valve tech projects. Thus, this time we will look at some valve work. Anybody play piano? We are always interested in stealing, uh, learning from other instruments and genres outside of the classical, and for this project we are going to borrow from the piano and alloy a basic bit of piano technique with a basic bit from educational psychology/physiology on efficient learning.

How do you eat a head of broccoli (assuming you wanted to)? Take the head and mash it into your face and start working your jaws? Or break off a sprig, chew it, swallow, and repeat until the head is gone? The first choice might be tempting because you are attacking the whole thing, and isn’t bigger (longer, higher, deeper, louder, more more more!) always better? OK, that was mostly rhetorical. Although you take on only a little when you go sprig by sprig, the small bit approach is indeed more efficient and thorough.

What a puzzle, then, when we apply this principle to instrumental technique. What do we do? We put the octave on a pedestal as the most important unit to work on, or better yet, two octaves. Or better: three!! The more octaves we do, the more virtuous we feel.

There’s just one problem.

Much of music doesn’t look like that. OK, there are stretches of composers like Vivaldi that use up  a year’s supply of octave runs pretty fast, but in general, look at any composition and you’ll see occasional octave runs, but mostly shorter bits. So practicing scales in a form shorter than an octave has the upfront advantage of being more like actual music.

There are more benefits: you can learn and excel at shorter units much quicker than longer units. Which would take you more time to learn: the Golden Rule or the Gettysburg Address? Another thing: when we practice octaves – especially multiple octaves – we tend to play them at fairly moderate tempos. If we practice subsets of octaves, we can work them up to be much, much faster.

It’s not that you don’t get to practice octaves. You just work on shorter units first and then use them to build longer scales, the same way you start with short words and then build sentences with them rather than just memorizing long sentences.

There are several ways to do this. The one we will look at here is the approach borrowed from the piano. A hand has five fingers, and they can be neatly arranged in a row on the  keyboard in, say, a five note selection from a scale (e.g. C: C D E F G). Also note that within this selection is the major triad (C E G). This five note unit is what we call the Power Scale, and we commonly refer to the notes with by scale degree number. Major Power Scale: 1 2 3 4 5.

For this Tech Project, your task is to become highly fluent in getting up and back (1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 through the Power Scale in all keys (don’t write them out; be able to spell them and then learn each by heart in the fingers).

Learn them in this order:

C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G

Memorize the order as soon as you can and always play this and other exercises to come without looking at the order. There is, in fact no paper or ink used at all in doing this exercise. You don’t need it: the learning is in you.

Articulation: start tongued, one or two notes per pitch. When you have reached your maximum in tempo, switch articulation to 2 tongued and 2 slurred. When you have reached your maximum this way, switch to all slurred. Your speed should increase using this order.

Tempo: start at a relatively slow tempo. Pile on the reps and gradually work up the tempo (use a metronome). Record your tempos. Pay great attention to a very precise synchronization of tongue, air, and finger movement. If you miss anything, slow down and repeat. If you nail it repeatedly, move up one click. Don’t be in a rush to increase speed. Accurate quantity is what you’re after. Speed is a natural by-product slowly acquired fluency and will come with quality + quantity.

You can and should play each Power Scale in each key a number of times. More is merrier. When you can play each one consistently very well, then cut the number of reps down to two, then one. One rep is review mode. You can also adjust the time between keys. At first, take a few seconds. Later, be able to go from key to key with no break at all – one long string of notes.

If you can zip through all your major Power Scales by this time, you can go on to make it a little more challenging: play ascending only. Then descending only (it’s harder – or rather less familiar) to start on the fifth and to descend, which is a good reason to do it.

An alternate challenge at this point would be to change the order of the keys: try good old chromatic: C Db D Eb E and so on. You could also make up a completely random order and see how you do with that.

Since you already know your major scales, learning Power Scales should go fairly quickly. But short scale practice will be different, like the difference between a sports car and a semi truck-trailer. The semi is big, but you can go really fast in a sports car.

Enjoy the ride!

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