The Beauty in Basics

“Even the greatest virtuosos practice the fundamentals,
because they are the basis of all playing.”
–Wynton Marsalis (Marsalis on Music, p. 124)

Scales, arpeggios, exercises . . . boring stuff. Right?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I find the practicing of such basics to be endlessly fascinating.

Students, though, often view working on fundamentals as drudgery.

What are such students missing?

Musical Command
When we veterans work on scales and the like, we take pleasure in refining our tone, timing, intonation and so forth. Our deep attention draws us in, and we become engrossed.

We value working on fine details, and we recognize that basic elements are embedded in every phrase we perform, so we do the focused study necessary to maintain musical command.

Students who become bored with basics fail to bring meaning to those same core elements. They’ll then grind out scales without attending to nuances. Yet seldom do they realize that, in doing so, they implant sloppy habits that undermine their potential.

Finding Meaning in Fundamentals
How can aspiring musicians embrace foundational work? For starters, they have to:

  1. Make connections between practicing fundamentals and achieving their artistic aims.
  2. Forge productive ways to work on basics so that they attain meaningful goals whenever they practice.

Regarding the first issue, if the concepts covered in exercises are promptly applied to repertoire choices, then the connections between technical and artistic goals become obvious.

In contrast, when students work on abstract exercises without artistic applications, it becomes harder for them to value the exercises.

Boosting Productivity
Second, to boost productivity, students require specific organizational and practice skills.

Organization-wise, I conceive of fundamentals as falling into two zones: Technique and Musicianship.

The Technique Zone encompasses scales and arpeggios as well as exercises that target skills – articulation, breath control, etc. The Musicianship Zone incorporates sight-reading and improvisation practice along with critical listening, rhythm study, ear training, music theory, and composing.

The free downloads at help musicians structure their work in these and other practice zones.

Concerning ways to practice technique and musicianship effectively, please see Chapter 5 of The Musician’s Way as well as the related posts below. Visit Theta Music for free ear training and theory games.

Related posts
Building Technique
Clear Goals, Clear Process
Glorious Details
Habits of Excellence
The Power of Specific Goals

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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10 Responses to “The Beauty in Basics”

  1. Erin Powers said:

    Mar 29, 10 at 16:58

    I understand what you are saying about the scales. I feel students really do not care about scales and they only push their way through it. I know I do. I never had to play scales in high school, but once I came to college, scales were the big thing. I can see a person becomeing a better musician by performing scales in a way where it can be interesting.
    Details are important is a true statement. Adding detail to each note creates a beauty to the music all together.

  2. Joel Gould said:

    Mar 31, 10 at 07:23

    I completely agree with your ideas. One teacher in particular has helped me understand the importance of scales. He told me that every piece that you play and every song that you sing is just a variation on a scale. This idea really hit home. As music educators, the band directors and private instructors of the world are charged with showing their students the connections between the music that they are playing and the theory behind it. Not only would it lead to a deeper and longer lasting understanding of the concept, but it would also force students to pay attention to the nuances that you speak of. In my experience, students that hear you say the word ‘intonation’ for the first time generally process the concept quickly. The fact of the matter is, and I may be wrong, that the issue of students failing to see the nuances or perform the nuances in the scales and technical studies often is not their fault. Music educators must take the time to teach music as an art form and not merely as a skill alone.

  3. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Mar 31, 10 at 08:17

    Thanks Erin and Joel – I’m gratified to know that you found this post helpful. I concur with both of you that attention to detail brings beauty and that teachers must guide students to experience the artistic nuances in scales and all technical work.

  4. Jennifer Tame said:

    Mar 31, 10 at 21:29

    I also agree with your thoughts. Throughout my own personal study and practice time I realize that one can become lazy or rusty at technique if those fundamental basics are pushed to the side. Some students may find it very demanding, but the fact is that progress can only come with practice. Through the basics we can find our little problem areas that we may pass over in the normal rehearsal of a piece. Nowadays we don’t pay enough attention to the fine details of our art. Those fundamentals are the foundation of our talents and abilities. By investing more time in scales, arpeggios, breath control and other vital areas we can only strengthen the abilities we possess. I feel that it is very important for music educators to stress these fundamentals. It may be work, but the ending results are definitely worth the effort.

  5. Kyle Hart said:

    Apr 01, 10 at 09:12

    Everything you’ve said, to some extent or degree has been taught at the college which I attend. We are taught in our ensembles to play or sing each individual note and treat them as if you have only one chance to make them the best possible note you can make. And let’s face it, during a performance, that is absolutely true. There are no “do-overs” when you’re on stage. It’s also true because music is the only form of art which exists solely in the dimension of time. You have only the duration of the note to make that note sound the best that it possibly can.

    Too seldom is it that students are taught to value their fundamentals of musicianship and technique. They try so hard to just perform without thinking about how to make that performance go from “just ok” to an unforgettable, exquisite experience for their audience. I’m not going to lie; as a performer, taking those hours and hours to master your fundamentals before really concentrating on your repertoire can be a little pedantic and boring, but in the end it’s all completely worth it. When you hear that concert hall ringing with applause and you know how much time you spent just GETTING to that point, you feel such a sense of accomplishment.

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 01, 10 at 14:13

    Kyle – I resonate with your thoughts. Bear in mind that I don’t recommend that students work exclusively on technique and other basics and not concurrently build repertoire and performance skills. Rather, I advocate an integrated approach in which rising musicians develop inclusive abilities and take pleasure in the process. See Chaps. 1 & 2 of The Musician’s Way for more info.

  7. Jimmy Ivell said:

    Apr 01, 10 at 21:52

    After reading this post and the comments, I feel a certain connection with the topic. I am a music education major and I have been playing trombone for 10 years now. When I came to college I had never been requested to play many scales (other than Bb and maybe up to Eb). I did not take the necessary time my freshman semester to really learn my scales. I didn’t see the point. Its just a collection of pitches played with a certain pattern. BORING! All I wanted to do is work on the solo pieces and melodic studies I was assigned week to week.

    I have since then come to the realization that scales are not just a collection of pitches that are boring. They are a very important way to work on many skills essential to our art. Articulation, dynamics, musicality, and intonation can all be accessed through scales.

    I think one of the issues some students feel (because this is how i felt initially) is that I need to spend the most amount of time practicing how to play the solos and the etudes so that in my lesson I can perform it well. I think students miss that if you practice you scales with articulation, dynamics and all of the other essentials, that it transfers to the etudes and solos resulting in less time spent working on individual note issues in solos.

    I think if students can realize this at an early stage, they will be able to understand the importance of scales.

    Another thing i wanted to state is that it is important for the student to be able to know and understand what they are looking for in excellence- working on yes that was excellent and no i need to do it again is an important thing for the student to understand.

  8. Seth Robertson said:

    Apr 02, 10 at 23:38

    I agree wholeheartedly with your points. In my early musical experiences, scales and warmups were practices reserved for the classroom, where I played or sang through them with the sole purpose of ending them. Years later, when I can understand the importance them, I wish I had had more motivation as a fledgling musician to practice the fundamentals. Looking back, I know that while I was not motivating myself in any way, my teachers were not applying the fundamentals to my future as a musician, only emphasizing that they needed to be done. So it is apparent that music teachers have an obligation to outline the possible futures of their young musicians and to show them the way to reach those futures by constantly tying each basic practice into it. Students need a constant reminder of why they are doing what they are told they need to do. You can teach a warmup proceedure, but if you never teach how and why it is applied, it will be just as useless as train trying to get to a town on the other side of a river without a bridge. One of my current teachers takes the time every ensemble meeting to relate our scales and warmups to the pieces we would be rehearsing, and techniques we would be required to master to perfect our music by concert time. I really appreciate his initiative. Tying in the fundamentals even to short-term goals like upcoming concerts can be almost if not just as effective at motivating students as using long term goals.

  9. Franklin Chen said:

    Sep 30, 11 at 11:03

    Hi, I am an amateur musician who somehow found this web site some time ago (and is reading the book also). I find the regular tweets to old posts quite useful, reminding me to every day to improve my practice. I just started a personal blog last week and have begun reflecting on my practice. In the past, I dreaded technical exercises, scales, etc., but now I embrace them, thanks to insights from this blog and the book. Thank you very much!

  10. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Sep 30, 11 at 11:08

    Hi, Franklin – You’re most welcome! Thanks for the comment and appreciative words. I’ll check out your blog. Gerald