Slowing Down and Listening

Practicing scales is a great opportunity to consciously shape our personal sound. For many years I would use scales to build dexterity and theory knowledge. On many levels this experience was very helpful. However, the greatest benefit I experienced from practicing scales happened when I changed my habits, focus and priorities.

When I finally slowed down and took the time to listen closely to myself, my playing transformed thanks to scale practice. Practicing scales can be invaluable in developing a personal sound and consistency of tone. The irony is that they can also prevent this from happening – I spent many years in this camp!

When my playing hit a low point and I grew frustrated, I put the metronome at 40 and played each note of a four octave scale for two beats. This took a really long time but it also started to open my playing up.

For the first octave I was filled with anxiety because it was so hard to play and groove at that speed. But once I started to settle in, I could feel a shift. I was actually aware of my sound. I really started to listen to myself. I could hear the beginning, middle and end of each note. I could hear the difference in the sound as I let go of tension in my neck, back, arms, etc. The sound was determining my technique. When the sound was thin or bright it was because I wasn’t paying attention or because there was tension in my body.

This was humbling on one level because I realized how unaware I had been when practicing. It was also very exciting. I felt liberated because I was finally able to allow myself to be captivated by the sound I was creating. This is what I had heard my musical heroes do on a very high level. I just never had experienced it myself for this long – a very slow four octave scale.

After getting into this type of practice, the autopilot started to take a backseat to spontaneous and creative playing – even on something as mundane as a very slow scale.

There are stories of Art Tatum showing up for gigs and playing all the way up and down the piano. He would remember all the out-of-tune notes or sticking keys and never play them the whole performance.

One thing that can be taken away from these stories is that we need to be flexible. We have to be constantly making adjustments as we play. What we hear and feel (within our technique) should be determining these adjustments.

It is my opinion that we should strive to attain a fluid technique rather than a memorized or rigid technique.

I often become fascinated watching my younger students try to play various forms of loud and soft dynamics from memory. You can almost see their body say, “If I push the key down this hard then maybe ‘loud’ will happen.”

“When I played this at home this amount of pressure made a ‘soft’ sound. On this piano no sound came out at all!”

It is tempting to use muscle memory to determine how much ‘pressure’ we need to play a loud sound or soft sound, staccato or legato, etc. It is hard to find joy in this type of playing. When we perform away from home or get to our lessons or sit at a different piano everything changes – yet we can’t. Playing music this way is very stressful because it leaves at the mercy of so many external factors.

Musical playing really starts to happen when we ask ourselves, “What do I sound like?” We should probably ask ourselves this question with each note played. When the sound determines our technical adjustments we become more flexible and in the moment. This means that listening to ourselves becomes the biggest asset to our technique and musicality.

Our practice can help our technique serve our art. However, mindless practice of technique can make our art serve our technique. There is not much joy in playing that way. There is not much joy in listening to someone play that way.

Over the next week I’ll spell out some ways to practice scales in a way to help develop this intent and awareness as you practice.

Here is a more detailed explanation of how to practice the scales slowly as mentioned earlier…

Slow Scales

Intent: Every note should have a consistent attack, decay and release.

Adjust your technique (posture, support, body) to manipulate the sound in the different registers of the instrument. It is important that the notes do not run into each other and overlap. Each note should start when the previous one ends. There should also be no gaps between the notes. There should be a very clear transition from one note to the next.

Play this with the metronome between 35 and 50. Each note of the scale gets two clicks on the metronome. Try to play at exactly the same time as the metronome. Listen. Listen. Listen. Become aware of any tension in your body and work to let it go – listen to the results of your adjustments in the sound of each note. Let the sound guide you.