(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:
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:
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!
(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?
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.
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
- the shift distance is smaller so the shift is easier,
- 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,
- every 2-note finger grouping is already covered by a 3-note grouping, and
- 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:
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:
and then shifting it once more:
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:
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:
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:
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:
or on the lowest note of the instrument:
or even somewhere 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:
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:
(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.
How to articulate with the bow is another huge topic, but this post is already way too long!
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.