Why you should use a scale sheet

My university students take a scale exam covering all the major and 3-forms-of-minor scales, plus arpeggios, in all 12 keys, memorized. In preparation, I provide them with a scale “sheet,” with all of the scales and arpeggios written out note by note.

There’s a part of my brain that objects to this, since I don’t really want scale playing to be a reading exercise. My students should be able to work out the notes for each scale from several different angles, by using (for example) interval patterns, transposition, and/or playing by ear. And the true goal is muscle memory—the ability to play all these scales on auto-pilot, without relying on any particular thought process.

The scale sheet shouldn’t be a crutch, but can it be helpful? I think it can. Here’s why:

If I’m working on a complicated repertoire piece or étude, I will certainly work from a piece of printed music, even if I intend to memorize it. Besides the printed musical information, the paper (or digital) copy also gives me a place to annotate the music with hints to improve my performance.

A scale sheet can work the same way. It’s not merely for laying out all the notes, but also for marking in:

  • preferred fingerings, articulations, etc.
  • current playable metronome markings
  • unresolved problem spots
  • some tracking/tally of which scales I’ve practiced lately (I find that if I let myself choose scales “randomly” to work on, I end up choosing the same ones repeatedly, and completely neglecting others)
  • indications (stars? check marks? smiley faces?) of progress and successes, that might help me feel motivated to continue

If you’re not using a scale sheet of some kind, I suppose you could figure out an organized way to write this information in some other document, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of the scale sheet.

As a teacher, I provide scale sheets with the ranges, rhythms, articulations, fingerings, and so forth that I want my students to use. You should produce your own, by hand or with the commercial or free music notation software of your choice. (Hint: use the transpose function to turn one key in to twelve, and minimize the chance of errors.)

Happy practicing!

What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

Making every marking audible

music notes

When my students work on études (musical pieces intended for study but not performance) I stress with them the idea of making everything on the page audible. That means that if I were unfamiliar with the étude but a skilled transcriber, I could listen to my student play, and write down with confidence every:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Articulation
  • Dynamic marking
  • Tempo change
  • Breath mark
  • Expressive marking, like “dolce” or “pesante” or “broadly”
  • Title or form indication, like “Aria” or “Folk Dance” or “Rondo”
  • And any/all other words or symbols left by the composer/editor

Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the pitches and rhythms and ignore or gloss over some of the other markings. But all of them have to be executed in a clearly audible way (otherwise, what are they there for?). If a performer technically tongues some notes but they sound slurred, then they weren’t tongued right. If some notes are marked with horizontal accents (like >), and some are marked with vertical ones (like ^), then they have to sound audibly different from each other. If the composer indicates that a certain passage should be played “dolce,” then it needs to sound audibly different from passages that don’t have that marking.

In performance repertoire, I do think there are (rare) cases when it makes sense to ignore or alter the composer or editor’s markings. But well-edited études (my students most commonly play Ferling or Rose) are an excellent opportunity to practice making each and every marking meet the ear with clarity and precision.

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!)

The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can only memorize the first 3-5 notes at a glance, that’s the size of chunk I should practice.

If the music has an obvious or familiar pattern, such as a common scale or arpeggio, I might be able to memorize more of it at a glance, so I can practice a larger chunk. Or, as I get increasingly familiar with the piece, I might be able to hold more of it in my memory at once, and can graduate to longer passages.

It’s tempting to practice in larger chunks, but start smaller at first to really develop your muscle memory. Gradually build to larger segments as you are able to store them in your short-term memory.

The wallpaper effect

white capsules on yellow background

Sometimes I see “challenges” similar to this posted on social media sites: can you find the letter J in the image below?

Of course you can. It’s not at all difficult. (But if someone online can convince you that it is, and that you’re one of the “special” few who can do it, then maybe you will “share” or “like” or whatever.)

Human brains are highly attuned to patterns. I’m not a brain scientist, but I suspect that’s why we like nice steady tempos so much. Dance music (from the Western Classical tradition to Country and Western to EDM) tends to have rock-solid pulses that make us want to move our bodies. Unsteady or inconsistent tempos? Not so much.

Have you ever been in a room with badly-hung wallpaper? A little gap or crookedness is immediately noticeable, and annoying.

In musical performance, little inconsistencies in patterns can be similarly distracting. Whether it’s a bebop tune or a baroque sonata, a tempo that varies when it shouldn’t is bad news. So is an unsteady trill, an uneven run, or off-kilter vibrato. An imperfection in the pattern breaks the spell.

While most kinds of music do place value on organic, human, dynamic elements, those need to be balanced against consistent, steady technique. For most of us, that means some long hours with the metronome, training our bodies to move predictably and unerringly.

To help your performance feel good, and get your audience tapping their feet, make sure the wallpaper is hung with care and precision.

Jazz education and the “ya gotta listen” cop-out

brass drums

It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.

(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)

But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”

“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.

If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”

How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.

If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.

And yes, ya gotta listen.

Jazz and classical musicians’ concerns about jazz playing

man playing saxophone

Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.

A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.

  • Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
  • For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).

I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.

But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, the way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.

(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)

My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.

Music guilt

person in black shirt playing brass colored saxophone

In my professional capacity as a musician and music educator, I frequently have to lay down the law with my students or with myself about not practicing enough. The sense that I’m never quite good enough, and that it’s my own fault for not working harder, is a real professional hazard.

But when I meet people who aren’t professional musicians or serious music students, they often seem to feel the same way. They confess regrets about an instrument collecting dust in a closet, about not “sticking with it,” or about never learning to play at all. Sometimes they tell me how much they used to enjoy playing, but how some additional factor like music theory or stage fright or scales took the joy out of it.

I have to remember in those moments to keep some perspective. While my own musical goals demand serious daily work, lots of people find joy in dusting off an instrument once a month or once a year to play the same three songs again. Some people find certain aspects of a traditional music education boring. Some might play well, but aren’t interested in doing it front of an audience or a teacher.

And that’s okay! There’s lots of room for musicians of all levels and aspirations (or non-aspirations). And, of course, we professionals need a public that is enthusiastic about music, not guilt-ridden and regretful.

If you want to learn, it’s not too late. If you want to play or sing casually, you may. If you don’t want anyone to hear you, you don’t have to let them. Music should be fun for you.

Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts

gift box decorated with ribbon bow for present

Giving someone a musical instrument as a surprise is a generous and thoughtful idea. But getting it right can be tricky. Here are some things to consider:

  • For serious musicians, like a student studying with a private teacher, a college music major, or someone who does any kind of (semi-)professional playing, an instrument is a very personal choice. Even if you know what brand and model they have been eyeing, they will probably want to try several, since they all play a little differently. If they are a student, their teacher should also have significant input on any instrument purchase.
  • Nice instruments are expensive, and serious musicians invest in them as something they will use every day and possibly use to make a living. Certain instruments can cost as much as a very fancy car! So, if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, it might make more sense to make a contribution toward an eventual purchase.

For beginners or more casual hobbyist musicians, their preferences might not be as specific or costly. But if you don’t have some expertise in musical instruments (more than Internet research can provide!) there are still dangers.

  • The very inexpensive “instruments” sold in big-box stores or online megastores are sometimes not really playable instruments but more like realistic-looking toys, despite what they say on the box or website.
  • Used instruments from classified ads or pawn shops may be in unplayable condition, in ways that aren’t obvious to an untrained eye, even an eye that is otherwise good with mechanical things, furniture pieces, etc.
  • If your idea is for a youngster to join up with, say, a school band program, that program might have some guidelines or requirements about what instruments are appropriate.
  • Information you might find on the internet isn’t a substitute for advice from a good private teacher, and music store employees may have motives besides helping you find the best possible instrument at the best possible deal.

If you are thinking about giving an instrument as a gift, consider these alternatives:

  • Buy a young recipient some lessons with a reputable teacher, and have that teacher work with you on eventually upgrading to a nicer instrument.
  • Ask the recipient what smaller-ticket, lower-stakes items they might need, like a new instrument case, strap, stand, etc.
  • Contribute toward (or fund outright!) a future purchase of an instrument to be selected by the recipient. A college-aged student might be gradually paying off the nice instrument they already have, and might really appreciate having it paid off in part or full.

Happy gift-giving!

What is my old instrument worth?

close up shot of a flute

If you have an old musical instrument and are wondering about its value, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Prepare yourself for the very strong possibility that it has little or no monetary value. The vast majority of musical instruments don’t increase in value over time.
  • For most instruments there’s not a reliable “blue book” kind of value. The monetary value is what you can get someone to pay for it.
  • You can check an auction site like eBay to see what people are paying for instruments like yours. (Search for auction listings that actually sold.)
  • Note that sometimes brand and model names get reused over time, and your instrument that has a similar name to an expensive one might not really be the same thing.
  • Condition is very, very important. In the extremely rare case that you have a model that has some significant value, that value usually drops a lot if the instrument isn’t in playing condition. High-level players will usually want to try the instrument before buying, and if it’s not playable then they can’t make sure it’s worth the price.
  • Note that an instrument’s condition may require more than a visual inspection—just because it’s shiny and not visibly damaged doesn’t mean it’s ready to play.
  • Donating an instrument to a school, etc. might be possible if the instrument is of decent quality and in playable condition. If it’s going to require a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair before a student can play it, it may not be worth it to your school’s band program. In other words, if you can’t sell it, it probably doesn’t have value as a donation, either.

An instrument that can’t be sold or donated for playing might be destined for the garbage. (They often can’t be easily recycled.) If you’re determined to find a new life for it, a local theater might want it as a prop, a thrift shop might accept it as a decorative item, or an instrument repair shop might throw it on their scrap pile to scavenge for parts.