Scales and Unexpected Life

My life has been somewhat chaotic the past few weeks. My mother (who lives in Maryland, while I am in Ohio) was hospitalized with a mild stroke. Luckily my sister lives in the same house and was able to care for her.

This was also the time the East Coast of the US was slammed with has been dubbed "snowmageddon", which dumped 3 feet of show in Maryland. While Columbus Ohio did not get as much as Maryland, we had enough to disrupt schedules.

With my mother's fate on my mind, I found it difficult to concentrate and get into the "zone" to practice effectively, nor to write for my blog.

Normally I would have enjoyed a few days of isolation, which allow me to escape into that wonderful world of practicing, where the only limitations are my time and concentration.

Fortunately, my mother is recovering at home, though she needs assistance to walk. Most of the snow has cleared. I am now in Bethesda for a few days to visit with her and help my sister with her care.

I was able to do some slow scales during this time, and, of course, practice the music required for my position with the Columbus Symphony.

If I only have a half hour to devote to practice, I use the time as efficiently as possible.

Slow scales are effective in maintaining overall technique, while enhancing my air use, tone, embouchure, voicing and legato.

1- I play all major and minor scales 3 octaves, quarters notes at about 80 bpm, or perhaps eighths at 60 bmp. The idea is to have some flow for legato, but slow enough to concentrate on finger motion, tone, intonation, voicing.

2- I start with a lot of air in the sound, a breathy tone, to force the embouchure to engage and avoid biting. It also engaged my full air capacity more effectively.

3- I often play the first few scales at mezzo forte, then progress to alternating forte and piano scales after my body has warmed up.

I have had some discussions with other clarinetists via Twitter and blogs, on the value of thinking of scales "musically" as opposed to purely technically.

Regarding technique and music making, it’s true that scales are not music. But scales are certainly used a lot in music, and of course, in music they are played “musically”. So the line is not really clear as to their separation.

If scales are like stairs, who's to say they can't be beautiful?

I have found that if I practice scales “mechanically”, I often have more tension than is ideal. I tend play with less than beautiful sound, perhaps less than ideal legato, intonation and other such “musical” basics. So, if I imagine the scales as a long, mellismatic musical “phrase”, I engage and lock into a higher level of coordination, one which will ultimately help more in real music making. Scales can be imagined as having chords underneath them, with tension and resolutions found in musical phrases.

This is not to say that scales are the same as the complex emotions transmitted by music, only that they should be played with the same care and attention to detail as would a real phrase of music.

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3 comments for “Scales and Unexpected Life

  1. February 24, 2010 at

    I believe the ability to start practicing and gain form again after a break to be one of the instrumentalist's most important abilities. Do you have any other tips for this, in addition to practicing slow scales? What do you do when you haven't practiced for a couple of days, and then try to get into shape again? How many days does it take you?

  2. yogahz
    February 23, 2010 at

    Best wishes to your Mom.

  3. February 23, 2010 at

    This article ties in beautifully with one I am planning to write for my website about the value of studying scales and arpeggios. I totally agree that scales should be practiced musically with expressive line. For most middle and high school students, it is challenging just to get the technique down initially. Once that comfort level is established, I add dynamic swells to scale patterns as they play them for our ensemble warm-ups.

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