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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Scales Are Seeds - Watch Yourself and Your Saxophone Skills Grow

Scales are Seeds - Watch Yourself Grow

by Sarah Anne Wolkowski

80% of your practice time should be spent on scales. There. An unequivocal declaration. Yes, I know, you weren’t inspired to start playing the saxophone after listening to your favourite artist play g sharp minor. Then again, maybe you heard Maceo’s magic-with-the-chromatic in, ‘Shake Everything You’ve Got’ and realized how exciting a scale can be. Ok, ok, I get it: in general, when a piece of music catches our attention, THAT is what we want to play. Fair enough.


Acting on this initial impulse, you attempt to copy the music you enjoy listening to. Except...you are not satisfied. You don’t sound like the artist you are trying to emulate. It starts to dawn on you that there is more to the game.

You can be sure that all great saxophonists have paid their dues by bowing down to the Great Scale Buddha. (Yes, he exists. His name is Jean-Marie LONDEIX.)

Scales are the natural resources upon which music is built. Think of them as a template or a grid. Learn the grid and all possibilities are within your grasp.

In my experience, students spend 20% of their time on scales, and 80% on pieces. A reversal, please! Here’s why:

1. SIGHT READING WILL BECOME A BREEZE, and it’s an essential skill for any musician. It involves putting your skills on display in real time. You can’t fake it. If you know all your scales, you can comfortably play in any key. Opportunities in the world of music arrive and disappear with a decidedly brisk stroke of luck. Your skills need to be up to the task.

2. LEARNING NEW REPERTOIRE IS EASY. If you practise your scales using the entire range of the instrument, (full compass) with even finger movements, (achieved by playing with the metronome at a variety of tempi) using the correct fingerings, and with a wide variety of articulation patterns, your core work is complete. No stone is left unturned, and there are no surprises. You’ve covered every conceivable pattern. Nota bene: this includes playing scales diatonically, and in intervals, from thirds through to octaves. When you apply this grid of knowledge on top of a new piece of music, familiar patterns instantly appear. Your brain is able to quickly assimilate the musical text.

David S. Ware
3. YOUR REPERTOIRE WILL SOUND FRESH and natural. It’s easy to over-practise your pieces. If you treat your piece like an ├ętude, the results will be disappointing. The audience will be able to hear you battling your way through the lines. Instead of focussing on transmitting the music, your mind will be busy sorting out the technical challenges.

When we play music, our minds operate like the tines of a hamster wheel. We constantly rotate through our focus points. When playing, we need to be aware of the notes, the pitch, the tempo, the rhythm, the dynamic level, and the articulations. We cannot concentrate on all these elements at the same time. Marvelously, the brain allows us to cycle through each element, quickly dropping and picking up on what the music demands at that particular moment.

By perfecting your technique through scale work, musical challenges that would be front of mind require less active attention. Don’t practise your piece in front of the audience! Work on your scales religiously, learn your repertoire carefully, perform confidently.

4. NERVOUS TENSION AND ANXIETY DISSIPATE in performance situations. There you are, lurking behind the curtain, ready to go on stage. Tuning into the reality of what is about to happen, you experience an entire set of symptoms. Heart palpitations. Slippery palms. (How are my fingers going to stay on the pearls?!?) Queasy tummy. Why are you feeling this way? More often than not, you are under-prepared, or the piece you are playing is too difficult for your level of technical ability.

When we watch great artists perform, they look and sound comfortable. That makes us feel comfortable. Although in a different way, a true artist enjoys his or her performance just as much as we do. When you feel confident about what you are doing, you put the audience at ease, and everyone enjoys the experience. Confidence comes with skill acquisition. Get the skills: learn your scales!

When you learn your scales, you learn the alphabet of music.



Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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