How effective is my practise?

As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.

One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.

A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!

This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.

I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.

Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.

In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.

The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)

Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?

All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.

The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?

Minor Scales – How I teach them and why I use this method

One of the first posts on Trumpet Planet was an explanation of how I teach people to play major scales. It is a popular post and I still use this method to date with pupils surprised at how easy it is to understand key signatures when explained in this way. If you have not read that post then click here to have a look.

This is another post in the series about scales, modes and tonality and I am going to address two issues relating to minor scales. First of all a discussion about where all of these scales come from and then an explanation about how I encourage people to learn to perform them.

Why teach the harmonic minor scale?

The first step to learning about scales and tonality is understanding why we are learning it. What is the purpose of each scale? How will learning this scale make you a better musician/instrumentalist?

What is the purpose of a harmonic minor ‘scale’ (and why is it in inverted commas?)? The harmonic minor is a group of notes that spells out those which are to be used when writing harmony, hence the name. There is a rule in music theory that states that all dominant chords must be major. Using the key of A minor as an example, the dominant note of the scale is E and, in order to fulfil its function in harmony, a chord built upon that note must be major – meaning that the note G needs to be sharpened. When writing harmony in the key of A minor you will therefore need to use the following notes:

A harmonic minor scale with perfect cadence
A harmonic minor scale (top line) with a perfect cadence.

This isn’t, however, something that is ever used in writing melodies in the minor tonality. That is the domain of the melodic minor scale, hence the name. So why is it that anyone who plays an instrument that is only capable of producing one tone at a time (barring any contemporary performance techniques) would ever learn and practise this scale? It serves no practical purpose. The ABRSM do find examples of music that use the notes of the harmonic minor, but I challenge you to find an example of a melody that features that characteristic minor third (the sound made by moving from the written F to G-sharp above) that isn’t derived from some kind of folk music outside of the western classical tradition.

What’s up with the melodic minor scale?

The melodic minor scale is actually two scales crammed into one. This is because choice of notes in the minor tonality is a little more flexible than in the major. The third degree of the scale (median) must always be flattened compared to the major scale, but the sixth and seventh are flexible – you can flatten them, or not. Flattening these notes depends upon whether you’re in the dominant key area, i.e. if the melody is about to resolve into another key, or if it ends in the key of the scale.

The ascending part of the melodic minor scale is also known as the jazz minor and is the same as its major counterpart except for the flattened third. If you know all of your major scales then armed with this knowledge you can already play the jazz minor by changing one note – a skill you would have begun developing from using my mixolydian exercise. Incidentally, if you were to take the jazz minor and flatten the seventh degree in the same way that you turn a major into a mixolydian, then you would be playing the dorian mode. The dorian scale is a fundamental scale used when learning jazz improvisation. It is much more useful than playing the harmonic minor on a melody instrument.

c-jazz-minor
Ascending half of C melodic minor scale (a.k.a. jazz minor)

c-dorian-scale
Dorian mode on C, included for reference.

The descending half of the melodic minor scale is also known as the aeolian mode, or the natural minor. The name natural minor comes from the fact that this scale, like the major scale, simply follows the key signature – it is in its natural, unaltered form.

c-aeolian-scale
Aeolian mode on C, written in ascending form for easy visual comparison (a.k.a. descending half of c melodic minor)

I find it hard to understand why the scales that make up the melodic minor aren’t taught as scales in their own right, and why exam syllabi ignore the dorian mode completely. For an instrumentalist learning to play in modern times this level of understanding is important. Wasting time learning scales that don’t have a practical purpose (harmonic minor) and neglecting and/or short-cutting those that do matter seems nothing short of stupid to me. Criticisms of established systems aside, I’ll now go on to explain how I have people learn to play each of these scales.

So you wanna play in the minors, huh?

Let’s start with my justification. As a general rule, people learn scales because they are a requirement for exams. Obviously they are a staple strategy for working on the technical aspects of playing, but students are often at a pretty high level before this becomes their purpose for playing scales. Before that, it’s about exams. So picture this, if you will:

You are a student stood in a room with a panel of examiners behind a table and one of them asks you to play “A-flat melodic minor in thirds”. You perform the scale at the required tempo with the designated articulation. Well done. Does the examiner then ask you how you knew which notes to play? Of course not! That’s because it is your practical abilities that are being examined, not your knowledge of theory. Hopefully you can tell from reading this post so far that I do not discount the importance of music theory. What I do disagree with is the way that tonality is presented by exam boards.

Now, here is the theory, just so you know it: The tonic note of a minor key is the sub-mediant note of its relative major. That means: If you want to know the key signature of F-sharp minor, you just have to count down a major sixth (or up a minor third, whatever makes you happy) from F-sharp to A. F-sharp minor has the same key signature as A major. This much can’t be disputed. But if I want to play the ascending half of F-sharp melodic minor I’m not going to use a key signature with three fewer sharps than the major only to put two of them back again as accidentals! That is what conventional theory teaches you to do.

Here’s my system – it’s all about rules. Before you learn a minor scale you must already know the major scale that starts on the same note. Sorry about that, but learning major scales is easy if you know how. I defy anyone who could practice my major/mixolydian worksheet every day for three months and not know every major scale afterwards. Sure it might be hard at first but you will learn. Once you know a major scale then all you need is this:

  • Melodic minor scale(s), ascending (a.k.a. jazz minor) – flatten the third note of the scale.
  • Dorian mode – flatten the third and seventh notes.
  • Harmonic minor ‘scale’ – flatten the third and sixths notes.
  • Melodic minor scale(s), descending (a.k.a. aeolian mode) – flatten the third, sixth and seventh notes.

The word ‘flatten’ in this case only means ‘lower the pitch of the note by a semi-tone’.

So, would you rather learn four rules and get used to applying them to scales you already know, or individually learn twenty-four scales following a bunch of archaic, contradictory rules that don’t even apply to performing music and still not know the dorian mode at the end of it? At this point I realise that I may come across as a ranting crazy person, but I studied music for a decade following conventional understanding and it was only when I began teaching that I noticed how poorly things are usually explained to people and how needlessly difficult that makes the learning process. In teaching both brass instruments and music theory I constantly see the exam boards giving examples of music that have obviously been hand-picked to demonstrate their explanations of theory rather than updating the way that we approach music education.

The American music teacher Jeff Smiley once said in an interview:

Music educators are the gatekeepers of the system, any attempt at reforms must go through them.

I see it as my responsibility as an educator to try and push music education into the 21st century. This includes both my approach to teaching trumpet technique and music theory. Let’s find easy practical ways to teach people things that from this end of the telescope are easy, not confusing.

The information in this post has been written out in full to make up part of my book A Practical 21st Century Approach to Learning Scales FAST! which you can purchase directly from my website using the following link:
[purchase_link id=”1088″ style=”button” color=”green” text=”Purchase” direct=”true”]

Understanding modes is all about perspective

As a music theory teacher I rarely come across a pupil who understands modes. Usually they have been vaguely introduced to the topic by a school teacher who has presented the topic to them by explaining that it was a technique used in the days before the tempered scale and that the modes were created by playing from different degrees of the major scale like so:

 
modes-wrong

Although these are correct examples for modes and one way they could be worked out, the point of reference for describing how they are created is completely wrong. If you were to ask someone who thinks in this way how to play a Lydian mode on F then their answer would be “that’s a C major scale”, which it is not. The correct answer should be “that’s an F major scale with a sharpened 4th degree/note”. In fact George Russell and Mile Davis would argue that a Lydian mode is the true starting point for any key, and that we achieve the Major scale or Ionian mode by flattening the 4th. In the following explanation, therefore, I shall do exactly that and you will see why.

The important thing to recognise is that, in modern music at least, each mode has a melodic function. It’s not just that we may choose to compose a melody using a particular mode so that it has a folk sound or creates a particular mood. For each chord we may choose to put into a sequence there is a mode that accompanies it that sounds good and enables us to move and resolve smoothly on to the next chord.

So here’s how it works: There are a couple rules to know and a couple of scales that are not modes of the major scale that you need to be shown. Having these extra couple scales helps you to understand the melodic function of the others.

There are two functions of a scale – tonic and dominant. A tonic scale goes nicely with our home chord.
So a C (maj7) chord, which includes the notes C E G (+ B). You play the major scale or lydian mode over this chord.

Flattening the 7th degree of a scale gives it dominant function.  Here’s an example:

 

perfect-cadence_trimmedThe extra scales you need to know about to aid understanding are the Lydian Dominant (Major scale with a sharpened 4th and flattened 7th). This is actually a mode of the Jazz minor scale (Like a major scale with a flattened 3rd and also known as the ascending half of a Melodic Minor scale). Knowing about the existence of these two scales just helps to fill in all the gaps when defining the function of the rest.

Here are the modes presented starting on the same note:

Modes

The vitally important thing to notice here (which is why the Lydian belongs at the top) is that every time you move from one mode to the next; Lydian – Ionian – Mixolydian – Dorian – Aeolian – Phrygian – Locrian; the note that you are flattening is a 5th lower than the last one you flattened; 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th, 1st; which means what? – It follows the circle of 5ths!
The circle of fifths is present in all aspects of western music.

Above each scale is a definition of it’s musical function – if it says “dominant” then the sound created will resolve nicely to one of the tonic modes. The Dorian mode is most commonly used over chord ii7 in a ii7-V7-I cadence. The half-diminished scale is the equivalent in a minor key – ii7b5, V7b9, i.
Also worth noticing is that the Dorian mode relates to the Jazz Minor in the same way as the Mixolydian mode relates to the Major scale (and that is the same as the relationship between the Lydian mode and the Lydian Dominant).

Please leave comments if you would like further explanation.

Major Scales – How I teach them and why I use this method

At the age of twenty four I had been playing the cornet/trumpet for thirteen years. I had achieved my A-level music at Wells Cathedral School and I had a Bachelor’s Degree in classical music performance on the trumpet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Having studied for six years with the top players and teachers and received masterclasses with some of the best players in the world I had never, at this point, had anyone explain the details of scales and modes to me, how they spell out the relationships between the twelve major keys and how ridiculously easy they would have been to learn if I’d only understood a few simple facts. Frankly I find this ridiculous and I can only speculate that the reason I had never been taught these simple facts is because the people who had taught me didn’t know them either. This is not in any way a criticism of my teachers; it is, however, a criticism of the way that music and music theory are taught in this part of the world.

When a pupil of mine has been playing for a couple of years, and is hopefully around what we may refer to as a “Grade 3” Standard I will start to teach them precisely how easy it is to learn all of the major scales just by understanding the way that they relate to each other. On the ABRSM Grade 3 trumpet syllabus is the scale of E major so I will begin by asking them to play that scale to me. I then explain that if we were to change one note (flatten the seventh) then it makes a different kind of scale, called a mixolydian scale. At this point it is usually within most people’s capacity to play a scale with one different note. I will then demonstrate that if you were to play the ascending part of this E mixolydian scale but on the way back down only play as far as the A it actually sounds more finished than if I were to carry on to the E I started on. This is a golden moment in aural training where the pupil can hear the function of V7-I in melodic form. This is very important in any genre of western music. This is a lesson that I was never taught. Provided the pupil can then play E mixolydian and finish on the A then I tell them that in fact they’ve just been playing the notes of A major, but starting on the dominant (fifth degree of the scale). So we follow on by playing the A major scale. To date I’ve never had a pupil who, using this method, cannot (without the music) then be guided to play around the circle of fifths all of the way from E major (four sharps) to A-flat major (four flats). Over time all that is then required is that we fill in the remaining three scales and the circle is complete.

By learning about the theoretical function of the mixolydian scale and its practical application a fairly inexperienced pupil can soon lose all fear of playing music in any major key. On top of this there is the advantage of repeatedly hearing the V7-I movement around the circle of fifths and learning how each key naturally guides you into the next.

The information in this post has been written out in full to make up part of my book A Practical 21st Century Approach to Learning Scales FAST! which you can purchase directly from my website using the following link: [purchase_link id=”1088″ style=”button” color=”green” text=”Purchase” direct=”true”]