Recommencing heavy practice again after some time away from the instrument has started me thinking about our practice habits as musicians. It occurs to me that some of these habits have shaky justifications – indeed, the reason we do these things is often that we’ve always done them. This article is about a gripe I have with technical work, in particular how we practice technical work. I’ll limit this to woodwind players as a) that’s my area of expertise, and b) other instrument families have their own technical challenges that this approach does not address. This article applies equally to both improvising and non-improvising musicians. I will start by outlining a rationale for practicing technical work, because this rationale sheds light on the inadequacies of the dominant approach, which I term the ‘key centre approach’. Criticisms of this approach will be identified, followed by an outline of a new approach and some exceptions to the utility of this new approach.
Why Practice Technical Work?
Technical work is fundamentally not the same as practicing a work or practicing running the changes of a tune. One generally practices either of these things to get better at that particular thing. For example, if you get a call to play one of the saxophone parts in Bolero, any practice you do of the excerpt is for the purposes of improving your performance of Bolero. Any other benefits you get from this practice are incidental. By contrast, only those preparing for an exam practice technical work for the purpose of improving their technical work. Those of us without an impending exam or overzealous teacher breathing down our neck practice technical work for the purpose of improving our playing generally.
There’s an obvious parallel with sports here. A sprinter’s sport consists of running very fast for 60, 100, 200, or 400 metres in competition with others. However sprinters don’t do very much of this in training, particularly over the competition distances. Their training includes general physical preparation (tempo runs, plyometrics, weight training), and sport specific practice (drills, starts, speed work). There is a small amount of overlap between the two. A side effect of training is that sprinters get better at drills, starting, and weightlifting, but that’s not the goal. The goal is getting better at running fast over competition distances.
Technical work is analogous to the sprinter lifting weights. You don’t need to be good at technical work (lifting) to be good at playing the saxophone (sprinting). Being good at technical work (lifting) is a side effect of using technical work as a means to improve your playing of the saxophone (sprinting). Technical work provides us with a means of focussing on a particular facet of our playing, so as to (a) develop general preparedness for future playing, and (b) address specific issues that we encounter.
‘I work really hard at technique drills so I get really good at technique drills. I don’t care if they help me run fast.’ – said no athlete ever.
By Nick Webb from London, United Kingdom – Usain BoltUploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20600380
To increase general preparedness, technical work needs to be relevant to your general needs as a musician. To address specific issues, technical work needs to be focussed on those specific issues.
Students (and a lot of adults) will hate practicing technical work if they chase short term gratification. Musicians who do this think about getting a great mark in their exam or not getting ‘in trouble’ at their next lesson. Both of these goals encourage a short sighted approach to technique because they encourage practicing technique as an end in of itself rather than as a means of getting better at the important stuff over the longer term. This approach may work for a semester, a year, or even a whole university course, but it results in an unfinished musician who likely will cease making dramatic improvement after leaving their course of study. It is also massively time-inefficient in the longer term.
If you’re old enough to understand the rationale for practicing technical work, but don’t do so, it indicates to me that you’re not terribly interested in improving. Those who are serious about technical work appreciate that it’s where much of the real work takes place.
‘Key Centre’ Technical Work Isn’t the Whole Story
Most of us group our technical work by key centre. We’ll practice major scales and arpeggios, minor (harmonic and melodic) scales and arpeggios, chromatic and whole-tone scales. Some more dedicated individuals might practice their scales in intervals. Also they might practice diminished and dominant seventh arpeggios and maybe also augmented arpeggios. ‘Jazz’ musicians will also practice their major and melodic minor scale modes, arpeggios with extensions, and pentatonic and hexatonic scales and patterns. I have three main criticisms of this approach.
Criticism One: Key Centre Specificity
Focussing on the key centre makes the technical work too specific for the vast majority of us. I am aware that this is a controversial statement – I will explain.
The general trend in western composed and to an extent improvised music has been away from functional harmony. Modern composers increasingly favour alternative harmonic structures. This is not a new thing – it has been a gradual process since at least the Romantic period. It has been obvious since Debussy, more than a century ago. Even a cursory examination of the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, or Messiaen should demonstrate that their foundations are rarely dominant-tonic relationships, or even a simple ‘key’. At the most general, however, the western musical ‘system’ remains the same: a twelve note chromatic scale and intervals of varying levels of dissonance between these scale degrees.
Because it specifies the context in which a technical element occurs, the key centre approach is tailored to music that matches this context, specifically music based on functional, key-based relationships. If we only practice key-based technical work, we invite difficulties when attempting to play music that is not founded on this approach. Perhaps the key-centre approach is enough for those of us who exclusively play music of the Baroque or Classical periods, or even pre-1960’s jazz. However, the majority of us, even full time orchestral musicians, do not fall into either of these categories.
Criticism Two: Middle Register Bias
The key centre approach, as practiced by many, is biased towards the middle register of an instrument. This is because we tend to limit our scales/arpeggios to multiples of an octave. For example, if I were to play an A flat major scale on the saxophone, there is only one complete octave of the scale within the instrument’s ‘standard’ range. Even if I were to play up to the first altissimo Ab, giving two octaves, my scale still won’t include the bottom major sixth of the instrument. To make matters worse, on most woodwind instruments the extreme low and high registers are the most difficult to produce, and generally also the most difficult to navigate.
This criticism may be mitigated by playing scales to the limits of the practical range, however, the extremities will still not have as much playing time as the middle register when scales in thirds and fourths are introduced.
Criticism Three: Interval Bias
Chances are, you and your students aren’t one of that exclusive group of people who play their major scales in all intervals. However, even for those people, the key centre approach is still biased towards small intervals. Scales consist only of tones and semitones. Arpeggios include thirds, with the major and minor arpeggios adding a perfect fourth. However, this fourth is effectively hidden because the mind is focussed heavily on getting back to the tonic, not playing the fourth. The key centre approach tends to omit intervals greater than the fourth entirely. Even in music with tonic-dominant based harmony, fifths and sixths are common, while sevenths, octaves, ninths and greater intervals regularly appear in modern music.
Interval bias can be addressed to an extent by practicing scales in intervals of a third or greater. However, by only practicing these intervals within a diatonic scale, what we tends to happen is that we learn their character within that scale, rather than practicing the hearing and fingering of the interval in a way that can be applied independently of context.
An Intervallic Approach
There is a first-principles solution to these problems with the key centre approach. This solution is to be found in the rationale for practicing technical work, from which derive the following propositions:
- Technical work should contribute to the overall development of the musician’s technique.
- General technical work develops the general preparedness of the musician to play the music that they play.
- General technical work is more efficient when it is applicable to the widest possible area of the musician’s art.
- General technical work should avoid bias towards particular registers, content, or context.
- Specific technical work should be focussed towards a particular register, content or context.
Propositions two and three are the critical starting points when devising a general technical work scheme. We need an approach that is neither genre nor time-period exclusive. A possible route to this end is to reduce musical material to its lowest common denominator. As mentioned above, the twelve intervals created by chromatic scale are common to the vast majority of the situations we play in nowadays. It is logical, therefore, to base our system of technical work on these intervals.
The backbone of this system is what I call interval stacking. Each ‘stack’ consists entirely of one interval, repeated through the entire range of the instrument. Stacks are transposed until the relevant interval has been played from and to each individual pitch on the instrument. Stacks may be ascending or descending, and may start at any point in the range. The focus on a single interval allows the ears to become used to playing that interval in tune. Stacks, like scales and arpeggios, can be played as quickly or slowly as desired. Note that the first four interval stacks constitute the chromatic scale, whole-tone scales, diminished seventh structures, and the augmented triad.
Stacked fifths. Do with them what you wish.
The advantages of the stacks include the following:
- Not key centre specific.
- Not interval biased.
- Less register biased than the key centre approach.
For a further level of challenge, the stacks can be used as the framework for further intervallic structures. For more information see Nicolas Slonimsky, ‘Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns’. This book was good enough for John Coltrane to practice from.
A Place for the Key Centre Approach?
So here’s the thing. Some of us still largely (or entirely) play music based on tonic-dominant harmony. Examples include historical performance specialists and jazz musicians who specialise in pre-1960’s styles. For these people, the reasons for changing the traditional approach to technical work are not as compelling. Also, for musicians in their early years of playing the instrument, a lack of command of the whole range, undeveloped embouchures, and insufficient strength in the hands will result in interval stacks not working as well. In addition, we all play some tonal music, the playing of which would benefit from some key centric technical work. For most of us, I recommend still playing major and minor scales and arpeggios, for no reason other than reminding ourselves what tonal harmony sounds like. Consider the key centre approach to be specific training rather than general preparedness. It develops a particular skill, that of playing in a key.
What About Temperament?
There is one further reason why historical performers in particular will not benefit from the approach I advocate above. Because these performers don’t use equal temperament, each key has an individual character. A further problem is that the interval between two notes does not sound the same as the ‘same’ interval between two different notes. For example, using Werckmeister III tuning, the fifth between Eb and Bb is not the same distance as that between D and A. The D to A fifth is closer by a quarter of a Pythagorean comma. Neither of these two fifths are the same as the equal tempered fifth. These changes in the quality of the interval being stacked result in the stacks being counterproductive as the performer’s ears will attempt to match consecutive intervals to the detriment of their performance tuning system(s).
I have used the intervallic approach for some time as a response to certain technical challenges in the music I want to play that aren’t adequately dealt with by the traditional approach. It is not a single solution – unless they are new music specialists, musicians will need to supplement this approach with the key centre approach as well as instrument specific exercises. The revolutionary idea here is that the key centre approach is no longer optimum as general technical work for most of us, because for most of us it no longer has universal carryover to our performance practices. It remains useful as specific training, and may be used to practice keys, learn the sound of a chord/scale, and address specific issues that arise in repertoire.
Part of the problem here is that we do not spend enough time and effort exhorting our students to play technical work and explaining why they should play technical work. By focussing on the ‘fun stuff’ during early years, we create the impression that technical work is something imposed upon us all by a music exam syllabus. It is not. Technical work is the nuts and bolts of actually being able to play your instrument. Practicing technical work is learning to play your instrument. By contrast, practicing music is learning to play music. These are very different skills. Emphasising the later may encourage students to ‘keep at it’, keeping teachers employed and universities music courses overflowing, but if we really wish to do the right thing by our students and aid their development after they leave our tutelage, technique and how to develop it is a huge part of what we need to be teaching them. It is not a skill where a given degree of competence is enough, and approaches that encourage that mindset should be questioned.
I also suspect that the current predominant approach to technical work is caused by poor practice habits. By this I mean the tendency I have observed in myself, my students, and my colleagues to do before they think while practicing. We set up and start playing before we have an idea of what we want to achieve and how we are going to do so. When we make a mistake, we try again before analysing what went wrong. This haphazard approach ignores our greatest asset as musicians – our brains. I suspect the reason it is so tempting is that we live in a society that is collectively uncomfortable with self-reflection and with being alone. Thinking leads to difficult questions that have indeterminate answers: what do I really want? why am I doing this? and (most difficult of all), what is it all about, really?
Metaphysics aside, all of this gives rise to further questions of the role of technique as opposed to repertoire in a practice context, and the difficulty of music chosen in relation to the performers’ general level of ability on their instrument.
In summary, an approach to technical work based on intervals is preferable to one based upon key centres for the majority of modern musicians. This is because it has a wider application to general music making. Key centre technical work is an excellent foundation for the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as about half the nineteenth. However, this period predates much, if not most, of the major repertoire for woodwinds. Our instruments have drastically changed since then. The year is 2016. Why should our technical work remain stuck in 1850?
 I’ll use an example I’m familiar with.
 Like making music…
 See Marcel Moyse, Exercices Journaliers pout la flute (Daily Exercises for the Flute) for an excellent outline of this.
 Whatever that is.
 NB: quarter tones are also possible for most of the range of most wind instruments. Probably a good idea to practice these also.
 More on this in the section about temperament.
 Excluding of course the altissimo register.
 Bb through G.
 The low register of the clarinet is an exception.
 Note that the key centre approach is also a system based on intervals. More specifically, it is based on sequences of interval, whether the tones and semitones of the scales or the thirds and fourths of the arpeggios. As discussed above, this is no longer enough.
 This is octave sensitive.
 I also term these people historical performance specialists.
 Google it – it’s interesting, but I have not the space to go into depth here.
 Good luck to you.
 Captain obvious…
 If you’re a saxophonist, your instrument has come into existence since then.