Currently showing posts tagged: jazz

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.


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.


Audio looping with Free Software

By , July 13, 2011 8:24 am

I’m currently on a musical pilgrimage around the USA.  I brought my Digitech JamMan Delay unit with me, because I was attending Christian Howes‘ phenomenal Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus, Ohio, where I knew I would learn how to turn this gadget into a hugely useful practice tool.  (Incidentally, I was not disappointed, and will blog more when I get time about how awesome Chris’ various educational offerings are.  Until then, click the links!)  Unfortunately at some point after leaving Ohio, the JamMan stopped working.  I guess it didn’t like being surrounded by a bunch of smelly clothes and then getting thrown in the hold of a plane. (UPDATE Sept 22nd: actually it turns out that it was fine – the power adapter just needed the UK standard of 240 Volts, and the US standard of 110V wasn’t sufficient …)

So the other night I found myself desperate for a replacement.  I do have a Boss ME-70 with me which has a built-in phrase looper, but it only stores 38 seconds which is barely enough to get to the bridge of Cherokee.  Even worse, there is no way to undo/redo loop layers or store the whole thing after you power the unit off.

Then it occurred to me that I could potentially combine my laptop (a cheap Samsung N150 netbook) with a microphone, headphones (as a poor man’s substitute for an amp), and some software to achieve the same thing.  At this point, those of you with a Mac will exclaim “sure – use GarageBand!”  However, as shiny as Macs are, they are expensive and I also can’t stand Apple for philosophical reasons.  (I can’t stand Microsoft either, which is why I use Linux, but I digress.)  If you are interested in an alternative approach to looping with software, read on!

Continue reading 'Audio looping with Free Software'»


harmonicas, and a reharmonisation of “Foreign Lander” by Tim O’Brien

By , January 15, 2011 2:38 pm

How do three music addicts survive when attempting to travel for 25 days without a musical instrument? Answer: they cheat. I caved in on day 3 and bought a harmonica in Kuala Lumpur:

Despite being sold as a “chromatic” harmonica, it could only manage a rough approximation to three octaves of C major. Also, the holes are in a different place for the top octave, which meant every time I attempted the “do re mi” major scale, I accidentally finished with “… fa sol la ti MI” followed swiftly by a profanity, and consequent howls of laughter from Corinna. It cost very little and sounded progressively worse the more I practiced it, although I only place the blame partially on the harmonica for that. In case you don’t believe me, here’s the proof:

(Now seems a good time to mention that if you haven’t already seen Shane singing 5 octaves on the piano, go and watch it immediately.)

Eli followed suit shortly after, although he managed to buy a harmonica which was not only roughly in tune with mine, but even stayed in tune with itself! He also proved to be a quicker and more dedicated student than myself. Nevertheless, by the time we reached Xmas day in Bangkok, we were able to give reasonably credible renditions of the harmonica duet version of Jingle Bells to our unsuspecting families over Skype.

Corinna sensibly eschewed* such a crude instrument in favour, sorry, favor of something much sweeter – her voice. She also steered us very gently away from the harmonicas towards singing too, although with my range being comparable to Shane’s, and Eli’s “occasionally unstable” falsetto, I’m not sure that was quite as sensible.

Anyway, I digress. We learnt Tim O’Brien’s beautiful song “Foreign Lander”, and figured out some harmony and a bass line, which by the time of the final performance with banjo in Changi airport actually sounded pretty good! However my jazz tendencies mean that I sometimes get the urge to take something simple and beautiful and do evil corrupt things to it. So when I got back to London I reharmonised it as follows:

(If you know how to play the piano properly, please ignore the fact that I don’t …)

[*] One of the many running themes of the trip was “words you write/understand but never say” – for me ‘eschewed’ falls into this category. ‘Sidewalk’ used to too, but after 25 days with two Americans, I found it magically popping out of my mouth. Eli came up with ‘idyllic’, Corinna with ‘laviscious’ and ‘ephemeral’, and there were several others I will need help remembering …


kids are pretty cool

By , March 31, 2009 4:25 pm

If you want a shining example of how to get kids to enjoy making music, look no further than Pete Churchill and the Merton Music Foundation. Last night I played in the Music is for Life concert at the Royal Albert Hall with about 1500 kids (some aged over 30) and it was a complete riot. Well, I guess anything involving that many kids is going to be a riot, but this one was very organised and massive amounts of fun. Great music too, coming from Pete whose composition career is so successful that (in his own words) it’s taken him as far and wide as Australia and Woking.

Unexpected side effect: the cravings to play jazz more often are getting too hard to ignore. If you see me starving on the sidewalk in a few years’ time with a big “will play bop for food” sign then you’ll know how it happened.


Jazz cello

By , March 27, 2009 10:14 pm

Doing a gig with Pete Churchill and some mates from my band in the Royal Albert Hall on Monday – haven’t played jazz cello in a while so really looking forward to it. No improvisation but I’ve heard Pete’s writing is really great so should be fun.

Also following hot on the heels of a mad mid-carnival gig, the next monthly installment of Guanabara goodness from my band is on April 4th – come check it out!


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