With the new year nearly upon us, many will make resolutions to do better in some area of their life. Many of these fade within a few weeks as our human tendency to settle back into the familiar and comfortable takes over. This is, I think, at least partly due to focusing on the action and ignoring the benefit of that action. For example, if we want to lose weight, we tend to focus on what we eat or how we exercise. But without the motivation of the health benefits and more attractive body we will surely have, the unpleasantness of dieting and exercising wears us down and eventually puts an end to our resolution.
The same principle can be applied to things like practicing a musical instrument (including voice). I find this equation useful in understanding boredom: boredom = repetition + irrelevance. A dry regimen of scales, etudes, orchestral excerpts and challenging repertoire will wear us down. Eventually we find ourselves hating to practice, and only doing so if we absolutely must. When sent home form a lesson with an assignment of scales and etudes, these will become boring if we do not understand the benefit, and have a goal in mind that we believe is desirable and attainable. Abstract goals, like “you must build technique” or “you must learn these before you will be able to play more challenging repertoire,” may motivate the teacher, but they don’t do much to motivate the student, who may very well ask, “why do I need to build technique, I have all the technique I have to play the music I want to play?” Or she may ask, “what more challenging repertoire do you want me to be able to play? I don’t have time to practice for the Van Cliburn competition, and I really don’t want to do that anyway.”
Compare this to telling a student that you are giving him these scales because those are the keys the all-state audition piece is in, and they are also on the required scales list. A student who wants to do well on the all-state audition will practice those scales because there is a purpose to doing so–a goal that they have bought into and that they want to achieve and will benefit from. It is a student-generated goal and the teacher is helping the student achieve that goal, not the other way around.
Scales can be practiced with variety, which will further reduce the onset of boredom. They can be practiced with different articulation combinations, with different starting notes, and can be run one into another until all twelve major or minor scales are played. They can be played in segments that ascend diatonically or chromatically. They can be used as an articulation exercise, played rapidly all staccato. They can be played expressively with a variety of dynamic contrasts, or several modes can be played consecutively from the same starting note (i.e. d major, d minor, d dorian, d mixolydian, etc.) Of course, chords and arpeggios can be treated in a similar way.
The more variety is used, especially in articulations and mode, the more flexibility and overall mastery of the instrument will be attained. Chromatic scales are particularly useful in building overall mastery, because they include all possible pitches. Whereas a diatonic scale excludes non diatonic tones, chromatic scales include them all. For the instrumentalist, this requires them to navigate to all keys on their instrument, and practice a much more diverse set of fingering combinations. A good use of the chromatic scale in this regard is to play chromatically ascending and descending the interval of a tritone. Play this several times, then move the starting note up a half step. This now places the weaker second pitch on the stronger downbeat. Shifting the metrical placement of pitches develops evens. This exercise can be combined with changes in articulation, which also influences how we audiate the relative importance of each tone.
Through all of this, scales and arpeggios are being played many times over, but in so many different ways that it does not seem like much is being repeated. Then, when the benefits of this kind of fundamentals practice quickly migrates to repertoire practice, the student is delighted with her progress, and willingly puts in more time on the pieces. A mix of well-defined goals that the student also desires, with built in variety is the perfect antidote to practice boredom.