Like every good student, I dutifully (though grudgingly) practiced my scales from an early age.
Of course, once I was old enough to practice unsupervised, I happily avoided scales as often as I could get away with it. Like taking my vitamins, it was something that I knew would be good for me, but I wasn’t sure exactly why.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s, that the lights went on, and I discovered why I should have been practicing scales all along.
So why are scales and etudes worth our time?
One summer many years ago, I spent a few weeks at a chamber music workshop where cellist Natalia Gutman was one of the coaches.
She held a master class for the cellists one day, and at one point did something that made all of us simply smile and shake our heads in admiration.
What was it?
She played a scale.
Up. Down. Arpeggios. One note to a bow. Eight. Sixteen. I think she even played the whole darn scale (up and down) in one bow.
Anyone can play a scale. But to play it with the kind of ease and effortlessness she demonstrated, with such precise yet organic and fluid bow distribution, control, evenness, smoothness, not to mention sparkling pure sound, clean shifts and intonation…sigh…
It left us speechless.
Scales may be the most basic sequence of sounds that musicians play, but observing a great artist’s mastery of the fundamentals was truly something to behold.
It dawned on me that sure, maybe I could whip off a mean Paganini Caprice on occasion, but I couldn’t come close to that kind of execution in a scale. As much as I wanted to dismiss the importance of scales at that moment, I finally realized why scales were so important and valuable.
It dawned on me that scales aren’t just about putting in the time. They are a testing ground. An ideal laboratory or controlled environment for developing the fundamental building blocks of our technique. Smooth shifts. Bow speed, contact point, distribution. Quality and concept of sound. And much, much more.
It’s an opportunity to strip away the dozens of other variables we would otherwise encounter in a piece of music, and focus on mastering just one aspect of our technique in isolation. Then adding in the others, one at a time, to see how that changes things. So that we can tweak and experiment with the little tiny details and truly master the fundamentals.
Sort of like how some folks nowadays recommend teaching kids how to ride a bike by taking the pedals off the bicycle, so they can work on developing balance first. Then, when they’ve gotten the balancing part figured out, putting the pedals back on so they can work on maintaining balance while pedaling.
Whether it’s experimenting with finger pressure, point of contact, or how much bow hair to use, it’s less about playing the scale perfectly, and more about exploration, hypothesis testing, and building up a toolbox of fundamental skills that we can then apply to whatever unique combination of demands we might encounter in our repertoire.
Are fundamentals boring? At first glance maybe, but is it possible to be truly great without a solid grasp of the fundamentals?
The “Big Fundamental”
Case in point, Tim Duncan is often referred to as one of the most “boring” players in the NBA. But with five championships, 14 All-Star appearances, multiple MVP awards, and more, he is arguably one of the greatest players of all time.
Nicknamed the “Big Fundamental” by Shaquille O’Neal, he is also widely regarded as being one of the most fundamentally sound players in the league – a defining characteristic of his game that many credit for his enviable and continued success over the span of a 17-year career.
Like the saying “heaven is in the details,” it’s the little things that don’t show up on the highlight reel, but add up over the course of a game, season, and playoff series, that are often the difference between winning and losing.
The egg test
Whenever my parents would go to a new Japanese restaurant, my mom would always order an egg dish – typically the tamagoyaki or tamago sushi.
She said that this was the test of a good chef, and you could often tell if it was a top-notch restaurant or not based on this one dish.
Sweet eggs always tasted a bit funky to me, so I had to take her word for it, but it seems that this is a real thing – not just something my mom made up.
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has been said to test chefs with the “egg test” as well, noting that many chefs will be able to prepare fancy dishes with exotic ingredients at a high level, but be tripped up by a simple egg if they have neglected the fundamentals,
There’s also this moving scene in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where an apprentice recounts spending months trying to cook eggs to the satisfaction of the master. How it took him perhaps 200-plus attempts to get it just right.
And here’s The Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, describing one of his keys to audition preparation – practicing the fundamentals.
So…can you pass the egg test on your instrument? Or the scale test, as it were?
What would it take to pass with flying colors?
The one-sentence summary
“What people don’t realize is that professionals are sensational because of the fundamentals.” ~12-time MLB All-Star, 1995 MVP, and 1990 World Series Champion shortstop Barry Larkin