Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet

Wynton Marsalis

“Even the greatest virtuosos practice the fundamentals, because they are the basis of all playing.”
–Wynton Marsalis
Marsalis on Music, p. 124

Scales, arpeggios, exercises . . . boring stuff. Right?

I don’t think so. In fact, I find the practicing of such basics to be endlessly fascinating.

Students, though, often view working on fundamentals as drudgery.

What are such students missing?

Musical Command = Mastery of Basics

When we veterans work on scales and the like, we take pleasure in refining our tone, timing, intonation and so forth. Our deep attention draws us in, and we become engrossed.

We value working on fine details, and we recognize that basic elements are embedded in every phrase we perform, so we do the focused study necessary to maintain musical command.

Students who become bored with basics fail to bring meaning to those same core elements.

They’ll then grind out scales, for instance, without attending to nuances. Yet seldom do they realize that, in doing so, they implant sloppy habits that undermine their potential.

Finding Meaning in Practicing Fundamentals

How can aspiring musicians embrace foundational work? For starters, they have to:

  1. Make connections between practicing fundamentals and achieving their artistic aims.
  2. Forge productive ways to work on basics so that they attain meaningful goals whenever they practice.

Regarding the first issue, if the concepts covered in exercises are promptly applied to repertoire choices, then the connections between technical and artistic goals become obvious – e.g., when upper-register scale work is applied to a relevant orchestral excerpt or solo composition.

The Musician's Way book cover

The Musician’s Way book – click to preview

In contrast, when students work on abstract exercises without artistic applications, it becomes harder for them to value the exercises.

Boosting Productivity in Music Practice

Second, to boost productivity, students require specific organizational and practice skills. Organization-wise, I conceive of fundamentals as falling into two distinct zones: Technique and Musicianship.

The Technique Zone encompasses scales and arpeggios as well as exercises that target skills – articulation, breath control, etc.

The Musicianship Zone incorporates sight-reading and improvisation practice along with critical listening, rhythm study, ear training, music theory, and composing.

The free downloads at MusiciansWay.com help musicians structure their work in these and other practice zones.

Concerning specific ways to practice technique and musicianship effectively, please see Chapter 5 of The Musician’s Way as well as the related posts below.

Related posts
Building Technique
Clear Goals, Clear Process
Glorious Details
Habits of Excellence
The Power of Specific Goals

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein