Rethinking traditional scale practice on the cello

By , December 20, 2014 2:28 am

(Please note that while this post was written with the cello in mind, several of the principles apply to other instruments too.)

I’ve previously blogged about how back in 2011, I decided to get serious about trying to become a jazz cellist. Since then I’ve had some really interesting and fulfilling musical experiences, but it’s also been a struggle in some areas. I studied and performed classical (in the western sense) cello for many years, but the demands of jazz are so different to most things I worked on during my classical training that I’ve had to fundamentally rethink many aspects of the way I practise.

Scales are one good example of this. I was taught to practise B♭ major something like the following:

standard classical cellistic approach to practising a B♭ major scale

The first interesting thing to note about this is that it omits almost the entire bottom octave of the instrument! There’s really no good reason for this; the bottom octave deserves attention just like the rest of the instrument. It’s only taught this way because the tradition has become incredibly “tonic-biased”, with no awareness of the different modes which even beginner jazz students get taught about.

So one of the first adjustments I made (and I probably stole this idea from one of my mentors, the great jazz violinist Christian Howes, who calls it “extended range”) was to always start from the lowest note of the scale reachable on the instrument:

starting B♭ major on C

Similarly, if the top tonic is not near the top of the range you want to practise in, just keep going until you hit a note high enough to make you think “OK, I don’t need to practise any higher than this!” Whether or not that note happens to be the tonic of the scale should be irrelevant; the most important thing is that you are practising the full range of the instrument which you need to use when performing.

Turning it all upside-down

Another bias which exists in the western classical tradition for dubious reasons is that everything is bottom-heavy: almost all exercises start at the bottom, go up to the top, and come back down again. This inevitably results in the bottom end being practised more than the top, which is particularly bad because the top end is way harder to play well. So let’s swap it all around!

starting B♭ major at the top

(By the way, along similar lines I recommend this great blog post on back-to-front learning by Anton Schwarz.)

Developing new “real world” fingering systems

The next odd thing to note about the classical tradition is that scales are almost always played using a single fingering, and that fingering is typically tonic-biased in another way: the tonic notes are very commonly played using first finger. Perhaps the classical pedagogy evolved this way simply because a single fingering system for each scale was perceived as easier to teach and also for students to memorise. But this approach is hopelessly inconsistent with the real world. If you don’t believe me, take a look at every fragment of a B♭ major scale present in the solo part of Boccherini’s cello concerto in B♭ major, and count for how many of those fragments it would make sense to use the fingering system shown above. If we don’t use those fingering systems when playing actual music, why spend so much time practising them?

So it seems clear to me that practising multiple fingering systems is beneficial for technical reasons, and in the case of jazz for musical reasons too: the improvisatory nature of which means that unless you rely very heavily on licks, you rarely know far in advance what notes you want to play, let alone what fingerings to use. So for any given tonality and position on the instrument, you should practise as many fingering positions as possible, so that when you are in the moment of improvising a solo, whichever hand position you’re in, as many notes are physically accessible from there because you’ve already covered those transitions in practice.

A system for practising all fingerings

But where do we draw the line? After all there are an enormous number of different possible fingerings for a 3-octave scale, and there’s just not enough time in the day to practise even a fraction of them. Or is there?

Violin fingerings

On the violin, this is a bit simpler to understand because pretty much any scale can be played in any hand position without shifting (at least, until you hit the top or bottom notes in that position). So on violin, you can simply practise any scale in any position, and carve up your available practice time accordingly: for example on Monday you could focus on 1st position, on Tuesday 2nd position, and so on.

Cello fingerings

On cello, it’s not possible to play any diatonic scale without a considerable amount of shifting of the hand position, so the problem of how to methodically practise all possible fingerings is far less obvious.

I think the answer lies in considering how to group notes into hand positions. It’s clear from the above examples that typically the hand position shifts every three notes, i.e. the majority of notes in scales on the cello are grouped in threes: 1-2-4 or 1-3-4 in the lower octaves, and 1-2-3 when playing higher up the string. Most exceptions to this are when the open strings are played (but they could be considered as “outside” the groupings anyway), and in the higher octaves of most cello scales, where 2-note groupings are common (e.g. the 1-2 1-2 1-2-3 type of fingering system is very commonly taught in the classical tradition for the top octave of a 3-octave scale).

My opinion is that practising 2-note groupings is really not that useful (at least to me as a jazz cellist), because

  1. the shift distance is smaller so the shift is easier,
  2. 2-note groupings require 50% more frequent shifts when compared to 3-note groupings, which is a big hindrance when attempting to play at speed,
  3. every 2-note finger grouping is already covered by a 3-note grouping, and
  4. I’ve already logged years of classical practice covering 2-note groupings anyway!

So I decided to practise all my scales in only 3-note groupings:

using 3 note finger groupings

Notice here that I’ve also stopped using the open strings (except for the bottom C, since there’s no other way to play it). I made this decision for three reasons. Firstly, in jazz it’s important to be able to transpose to another key at any moment, so I don’t want to become too reliant on scale fingerings which use open strings, since they only work in one key.

Secondly, it makes it very easy to extend this system so that it covers every possible fingering of the scale using 3-note groupings! This is possible simply by shifting the starting hand position by a single note:

starting with the hand position offset

and then shifting it once more:

starting with the hand position offset twice

String variations

Thirdly, it allows freedom to introduce variations on which string is used for a particular group. For example bars 5 and 6 of the above example could be played like this:

string variations

I don’t use a strict system to ensure I always cover all possible string variations; instead I like to improvise the choice of string on the spur of the moment, since this matches more closely what can happen when improvising on stage.

Connecting the dots

Of course this system of 3-note groupings with 3 different starting positions for every scale triples the amount of scales to practise! However since I would normally practise each scale more than once anyway, I aim to seamlessly join up the different offsets in order to cover all combinations without requiring significantly more practice time:

connecting different hand position offsets

and so on. Actually the hand position “offset” can be changed at any point in the scale, and this is also something I like to improvise on.

Changing the tonality

So far the examples have all used a major scale. The classical tradition also covers harmonic minor and melodic minor (which is different ascending to descending). In the jazz world (especially for more modern jazz), the ascending form of the melodic minor is particularly important, so I practise that in both directions:

melodic minor practice

Jazz also uses the harmonic major scale and many other scales, so I mix some of these into my practice, although I find it easier to spend a few weeks/months focusing on one particular scale rather than attempt to cover all scales in every practice routine, which just seems too ambitious. Incidentally, back in 2013 I built the “Scale Matcher”, a web application to show which scales can be used for improvisation in any given chordal context.

Changing the key

Fortunately not all music in the world is written purely in B♭. Unfortunately this means we have to practise other keys too! I try to change key seamlessly without stopping, because this is one of the most fundamental requirements in jazz for improvising over a series of chord changes. Again I like to avoid any tonic bias by changing key on other degrees of the scale. For example, after completing one cycle of all 3 hand positions in B♭ minor, I could shift tonality up a semitone to B minor, changing near the top of the instrument:

seamlessly changing the key at the top

or on the lowest note of the instrument:

seamlessly changing the key at the bottom

or even somewhere in the middle:

seamlessly changing the key in the middle

This is a fun workout for the brain as well as the fingers!

Hand position “windows”

Above I’ve suggested a system for dealing with the cello’s limitation of not being able to play a continuous scale in any key without shifting the hand, which ensures that every possible fingering of a given scale can be methodically covered during practice.

However there’s a completely opposite approach, which is to embrace this limitation and simply fix your hand in a single position and only play the notes of the scale which you can reach from that position, dropping the others! This is particularly useful when improvising at speed, since it drastically reduces the amount of shifting required. I learnt this idea from three of my all-time cello heroes (Erik Friedlander, Mike Block, and Rushad Eggleston), and then extended it to apply to every scale I work on:

position windows in B♭ minor

I’ve found that improvising within a given “window” can result in some interesting melodic shapes.

Patterns / shapes

Rather than simply ascending or descending, there are an infinite number of patterns to choose from for varying the shapes generated by traversing the scale. Here are a few simple examples:

position patterns in B♭ minor

(The last two were shamelessly stolen from Christian Howes.)

Rhythm / metronome usage

So far I haven’t said anything about rhythm or use of the metronome (which in my opinion is an essential part of scale practice). In fact this topic is so huge I’ll leave it for another blog post at another time! But of course there are an infinite number of ways to vary rhythm, and the western tradition tends not to examine these in much detail. One thing I enjoy doing is freely improvising the rhythm when playing scales, even if everything else (notes, fingerings etc.) is fixed.

Articulation

How to articulate with the bow is another huge topic, but this post is already way too long!

Conclusion

It’s clear that there are zillions of ways to vary scale practice and keep it interesting whilst challenging yourself in new ways. Perhaps the most important thing for any diligent musician is to constantly invent their own new practice systems, rather than just copying someone else’s verbatim.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! This is pretty dry reading, but I hope you found it useful or at least interesting. If you have any feedback of any sort, I’d love to hear it, so please leave a comment!

P.S. For the curious geeks, this blog post was created from a single text file with the combination of some incredible free software: the GNU Emacs editor, GNU Lilypond music typesetter, Org mode, org2blog, and the Org-babel-lilypond backend to Babel.

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new music video: acoustic version of Jóga by Björk, with Emma Smith

By , September 18, 2013 1:20 pm

I’m a long-time fan of Björk, and was recently lucky enough to snarf a spare ticket to a show here in London at the end of her Biophilia tour. It was a fairly insane show (in a good way), involving an all female Icelandic choir, a drummer, an organ, a musically aware lightning bolt generator, a pin-barrel harp, and David Attenborough (obviously). Really impressive to see how she’s still trail-blazing rather than just churning out the old favourites (although some of the latter were presented in imaginative new ways).

On a related note, back in February I revisited my old haunt the Royal Academy of Music to record/film a version of Björk’s famous tune Jóga, arranged and sang by the amazing and consistently entertaining singer Emma Smith. Yesterday I finally finished the video editing (done with the awesome Kdenlive video editor which is Free Software), and here is the result. Hope you enjoy it!

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announcing the Scale Matcher!

By , August 23, 2013 7:00 pm

I’ve been a bit of a hermit the last few weeks, burning the candle both ends and spending the majority of my spare time building a new toy … well actually it started out as a toy, but now I think it’s good enough for musicians to use as a serious tool for improving their improvisation / compositional skills, and harmonic understanding.

So I’m very pleased (and relieved) to be able to announce … <drum roll> … the Scale Matcher!  It should work equally well on your computer, phone, and tablet.  Please try it out and let me know what you think!  You can also click the About and FAQ buttons to find out more.

Thanks to Barak Schmool for providing the original inspiration to do this, and for the time he spent testing it out and suggesting improvements.

Scale Matcher home page

Scale Matcher sample results page

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London Tango Orchestra featured in BBC Persia documentary

By , February 28, 2013 10:06 pm

These days I have the regular pleasure of playing in the London Tango Orchestra with some wonderful musicians. A while back we did some filming for a BBC Persia documentary, and we recently received copies of the videos, which came out pretty well! Take a look …

This next one is the gorgeous Piazzolla tune Milonga del Angel. Unfortunately the video and audio don’t match for the first half, but it gets back in sync at 3’35″:

and finally …

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music industry learns nothing from the Avid / Sibelius saga?

By , February 25, 2013 11:46 pm

UPDATE 26/02/2013: Daniel has replied to this post, and I have replied to his reply.

As George Santayana famously said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. In light of recent news regarding music notation software, I would add with some disappointment and frustration that those who choose to ignore the past are also condemned to repeat it.

For those of you who don’t already know, Sibelius is a proprietary software product for music notation which has for many years been one of the most popular choices for professional musicians and composers. For many of the more experienced customers in the technology industry who have already been burned in the past, a heavy reliance on a single technology is enough to trigger alarm bells – what if the company providing that technology goes bust, or decides to change direction and cease work on it, or simply does an awful job (*cough* Microsoft *cough*) of maintaining and supporting that technology? Then you’re up a certain creek without the proverbial paddle.

In the IT industry, this is a well-known phenomenon called vendor lock-in. A powerful movement based on Free Software was born in the early eighties to free computer users from this lock-in, and is now used on billions of devices world-wide. You may have never heard of Free Software, but if you own an Android phone or a “broadband” router, or have ever used the Firefox browser or Google Chrome, you have already used it. The vast majority of the largest companies in the world all run Free Software in their datacentres around the world; for example, every time you access Google or Facebook you are (indirectly) using Free Software.

What does any of this have to do with Sibelius? Continue reading 'music industry learns nothing from the Avid / Sibelius saga?'»

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