Practicing Scales on Autopilot?

Are you practicing scales on autopilot? Perhaps you turn on the metronome and then tear through them as fast as you can to get them over with for the day. There’s nothing interesting about practicing scales after all, is there?

If this is what you think, you are short-changing yourself. Practicing scales or anything else on autopilot, without engaging your powers of observation and problem-solving, is only minimally productive. And it is boring!

Here are some things you could be improving in your scale practice, besides speed!

Fluent, relaxed finger technique, full, relaxed inhale, tone quality and consistency, articulation, rhythm, intonation, air management, dynamics, musicality, posture, alternative fingerings, beatboxing techniques. . . . . what am I forgetting? Probably at least a half dozen other things.

Here are some recommendations of what to listen for the next time you practice scales.

1. Tone first, always. Everything is a tone exercise! Each and every note must be as beautiful as the one before and after it. Any inconsistency in the sound is caused by an inconsistency in the air or the fingers. Listen for it, diagnose the cause and eliminate it. Keep the beautiful stuff going through every note!

2. Intonation, always. Good intonation and good tone go together, so improve the intonation and the tone will also be improved. Are you stretching your octaves by going sharp as you ascend the scale or flat as you descend? Set your tuner or other drone generator to the keynote of the scale to use as reference, then tune each note of the scale to that drone. Then play the scale at a medium tempo and work on landing the keynote (or tonic) perfectly in each octave. (Great for arpeggio practice, too!)

3. Articulation. Use your scales to practice as many different articulation patterns as possible. Staccato, legato, slur, air only attacks, double tonguing, triple tonguing and every variation you can think of. Do a different pattern on each scale, then tomorrow rotate the patterns so you practice different ones on each scale.

And as in the tone exercise, make each and every articulation at least as good as the one before it and the one following. If a note doesn’t ‘speak’, stop and figure out why. What is keeping the air from getting to the flute so that the note speaks clearly?

I’ll skip going into practicing with a metronome for evenness and speed because I assume you are probably already doing that. If not, then please do! What I’ve described will help you form a good foundation for productive scale practice. You can expand on them to include much more, but the most important thing is to always be engaged and actively listening and problem solving as you practice. This makes practice much more productive and hopefully endlessly interesting. So switch off the autopilot and put your scales to work!

 

 

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Practice What You Don’t Know First

Practice what you don’t know first and most.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It is all too easy to start our practice with what is most familiar and comfortable. But that does not help us conquer what is difficult and uncomfortable. Especially when we have limited practice time and are overwhelmed by what we feel we need to accomplish. The simplest and most efficient approach is to start with what we are most unfamiliar with. After all, why practice what we already know when there is so much we want to learn and improve?

I learned this firsthand when there was a period of time where I had a lot of unfamiliar music to learn and limited time in which to learn it. I tried to make the most of what little time I had, ten minutes here, maybe a half hour there, if I was lucky. Subsequently I was amazed that by concentrating my full attention (and please note that I am emphasizing attention and not pressure) on the passages that I was least comfortable with, I made quick progress toward being performance-ready.

I credit my teacher during this time, Alex Murray, for this approach. He gave me many practical, common sense ideas to use in my practice, and this is one of what should have been one of the most ridiculously obvious of ideas.

So if you have little time to practice, start with the passages that give you the most trouble. Give them that laser-like focus that you have when your time is limited. You might be amazed by what you can achieve.

 

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More on Improving Intonation With Drone Practice

Image result for intonation

Believe it or not, I am not the only musician who believes that practicing with drone pitches is a great way to develop good intonation skills. Professional saxophonist and Alexander Technique teacher Bill Plake does, too.

If you’ve read more than a couple of posts on Practicing Flutist, my views on why you should practice intonation skills with a drone are pretty obvious. I love it when I find others doing the same things I am doing, but in a slightly different way or to develop different skills.

When I came across Bill Plake’s post about how he workes with a drone, I wanted to share them with you. He even uses drone practice as a way to encourage rhythmic variation in improvisation practice, more proof that the possibilities are endless! So check out this post from his blog on billplakemusic.org to get someone else’s viewpoint on drone practice.

A Highly Effective (And Really Fun!) Way To Improve Your Ears

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Intonation Practice Exercise with a Drone 1

Image result for pitch

If you’ve never done intonation exercises with a drone, here is a good way to get started.

First you need a drone generator. This is any device that will play and hold a steady pitch, the drone. Many tuners and tuner apps will sound pitches, electric pianos will sound a pitch as long as a key is depressed, or a cooperative musical friend can provide drone pitches (good practice for both of you!)

Now choose a scale that you are comfortable and confident playing. You want to be able to use your best sound throughout, so start with your best scale, if you have one.

Set the drone generator to the tonic or keynote of that scale, e.g. C for a C major scale, A for an a minor scale and start the drone playing.

Starting at the lowest tonic you can play for the scale, play it against the drone, listening to hear if you are playing above or below the drone pitch, with the aim of matching the pitch of the drone. When you can match the drone and hold that pitch, then play up the scale, slurring, to the next octave. When you arrive at the tonic pitch, check it against the drone as you did for the first note. Do this for all octaves you can play. When you get to the top, then work your way back down, checking and matching all the tonic pitches as you go.

Once you have completed working your way all the way up and all the way down, do it again and ask yourself these intonation questions as you go.

1. How much am I having to adjust as I arrive on each keynote? If I’m making big adjustments, how do I keep that from being necessary?

2. Are the adjustments different for ascending the scale and descending the scale? Why might this be the case? What can I do about this?

Try this for a week, on all the scales you regularly practice, and see what you notice about your intonation. Share your results in comments, Twitter @FlutistDeanna, Facebook etc. I’d love to hear how you do!

 

 

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Intonation in Action Exercise

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises

 

The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)

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