Scales, sounds, and selves

I love playing scales. I play them every day, and think of them as one of the fundamental elements of a musician’s art.

Because I hope to convey my enthusiasms to my students in a way they might find infectious, I was surprised when one admitted to me that she found her daily scales practice boring. She had, she told me, religiously played scales in her “key of the day” with varied bowing patterns and articulations as I’d directed her to, but hated it so much that she’d started setting a timer and glancing at it every few seconds to see how much closer she was to being “done.” (Are we ever really “done” with anything, as musicians, the way a batch of muffins are “done” when the timer goes off? I don’t think so.)

That’s when I had to stop and rethink a bit. Why, I asked myself, do we really play scales? We’ve all heard the explanations–they keep your fingers supple, they teach you fingering patterns in all keys, they give you a chance to work on counting and articulation away from actual music, they improve your intonation in all keys.  I didn’t have to tell my student all this, because she’d dutifully internalized this information long ago.

But at some point on my journey as a cellist, I started treating my scales less as an assignment in note-learning and bow-stroke isolation, and more of a meditative practice. If I don’t have a lot of practice time one day and only have enough time to, say, learn my part for an upcoming concert, I find myself craving the purifying effect of scales the way I crave apples and celery sticks after I’ve eaten a lot of rich food.

One of the first things I do in daily practice is to put my metronome on 30 bpm, and practise four-octave scales in long tones with four clicks per note.

The question I ask myself when I do this is “Am I making my best sound?” And that question is enough to keep me interested, and motivated, for a long, long time. Am I releasing the utmost resonance from the cello? If not, why not? Is the cello trying to tell me that I’m not perfectly in tune? Am I tense? Am I creating a pattern that results in a small or ugly tone?

As I wrote in my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, “sound is everything.” Of course all the other things matter too: the phrasing, the dynamics, the articulations. But if you aren’t making a sound the audience wants to keep listening to, none of your expression will touch their hearts. Great orators don’t just have powerful messages to tell us, they also have voices we want to keep listening to. An effective cello performance isn’t so different from, say, a rousing speech by President Obama.

Sometimes, at the end of one of these scale sessions, I find that the quest for my best sound has had a calming effect on my feelings in general, almost as if I’ve asked myself “Am I being my best self?” just as much as “Am I making my best sound?” And perhaps that’s the starting point for being a really effective agent of music-making, whether in practice, rehearsal, performance, or the teaching studio.

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