Classical Harmonic Fluency

I have spent a great deal of time developing my practice technique to be efficient and productive.  In order to do this, I’ve had to focus what is most important as a player and a musician.  Obviously a great sound, great timing, versatile articulation, great ears, etc. etc. are important strengths for any musician.  Additionally I need to be a great reader as well as able to play by ear and blend with a section.  There are a myriad of ways in which musicians try to cultivate these skills, and over the past several years, I have evaluated these methods through the lens of modern cognitive theories of mind.  When I did this, I realized that there are some methods of practice that are not wrong per say, but seem to be a little counterproductive when evaluated by what scientists have discovered with how the brain organizes and refines knowledge and information.  If you are going to play in an environment of Western tonal music, the BEST way to develop this ability is to base your technical exercises on the very same foundation of Western tonal music.  It seems logical, right?  It’s almost a no-brainer.  Still, most people are not doing this.  Worse than that, they think they are, but are misleading themselves.  Here’s how I approach it:


If technical exercises are going to be truly musical, then they MUST have a dynamic harmonic progression!


Most of Western tonal music is based on the basic ebb and flow between tonic and dominant.  Everything can be boiled down to a starting point, pulling away from that starting point, and resolving back to it.  Musicians learn this as "I-V7-I" in beginner music theory lessons.  We eventually learn more complex harmonic progressions, but the simplest form of this is a I-V7-I progression.  


A Little History and why it Applies to the Importance of Harmony in our Technique


In Western tonal music, octaves are split into a perfect 4th and perfect 5th.  It is not split equally (the tritone was historically avoided and even now is considered quite dissonant).  This unequal division was discovered through the measurement of proportions by Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. where he described the octave as a 2:1 ratio, the Perfect 5th as a 3:2 ratio, and the Perfect 4th as a 4:3 ratio of vibration.  This has created the backbone of Western tonal music as it sits on a dynamic harmonic progression.  This uneven distribution creates energy, a gravitation.  It is not stagnant.  It has motion and energy.  Interestingly, the same concept of gravitational energy can be used to describe planetary orbit.  Einstein’s general theory of relativity describes gravity as being caused by a curvature of space-time and thus an elliptical pathway (not circular).  It is the same unevenness that can be used to describe Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion.  Some describe tonic and dominant as a type of “ying and yang” where the forces are complementary and together form a dynamic system.


It is this energy that is missing from so many common technical exercises people have learned to practice.  Think of your exercises, warm-ups, scales, etc.  Most likely they sit in a single chord in isolation.  There is no harmonic movement.  It is true that you can add phrase and direction, but I argue that you are putting forth superfluous energy towards this goal, and in the end it will sound contrived in comparison to lines and phrases that are grounded in the same harmonic framework of Western music.


A Truly Vocal Approach


Wind players in particular are always talking about emulating the human voice and using a "singing" approach.  We have all had teachers that have told us to "sing" through the instrument.  One of the largest debates in brass pedagogy is between playing technical exercises versus actual music.  “You should play everything as if it is a beautiful musical phrase” is a common work-around to this issue, but the truth is many technical exercises sound mechanical and void of authentic phrase.  Many of us come from programs that play technical exercises to develop our approach to Western tonal music that do not possess this same natural energy of ebb and flow.  The exercises that we all know and love from common ensemble method books are not grounded in Western tonal harmony.  Scale patterns that sit stagnant in a single key (I can hear the Bb scale in a typical 8th, 16th pattern up and down in my head right now).  We wonder why students practice scales every day but then cannot read or apply their knowledge in the same keys.  They know their Ab scale pattern but fall apart when applying it to a piece written in Ab.  Everyone knows their SCALES but no one knows their KEYS.  I grew up with the Remington Long Tones.  I do not mean to offend the message and intent of Emory Remington himself, but the exercise does not live within the same framework of typical Western harmony.  It is designed to work within mechanical constraints of the open overtone series.  It is not based on Western tonal harmony.  It’s not based on music at all.  This is why we don’t hear choirs warming up on Remington.  Why would they!? They vocalize on simple I-V7-I melodies and arpeggios.  This is truly a vocal approach!


Everything Starts with I-V7-I


When I threw out my old book of exercises and developed technical exercises that are grounded in Western tonal harmony, my entire playing changed dramatically.  I sounded more musical immediately and my ability to apply my technique to musical repertoire skyrocketed.  There is no wasted time.  There was no collateral trade-off.  My practice became highly applicable to my repertoire and I felt like I was getting more done in less time.  Click on the above links to see what  I use.

Watch this video for a live description

Flexible Instrumentation, Flexible Difficulty


Get together with your friends and play multiple parts.  As a teacher, I like to play Part VI (The bass line) while students play other parts.  As you or your students develop security and familiarity with the parts, you can combine parts and make hybrid versions and eventually play scale patterns and arpeggiations.  Younger students can play the basic long tone pattern while more advanced students can play more challenging patterns.  The best part is it can all happen at the same time.  It is a slow gravitation towards vocalizing (or even improvising) in each key.  Watch my videos for further demonstration. 




Is it better to practice the same thing every day to develop “consistency”?  Modern sources say no.  By diversifying your repertoire, you are creating a more robust parameterization and a more versatile ability to navigate within key or tonal centers.  At this point, I play a different scale pattern every day.  My 2015 goal is to never repeat in 2015.  I have already noticed an increased ability to learn new patterns and the BEST part is it all sounds musical.  My ears are more discerning with intonation and phrase and the “chops” I am gaining actually make me a better sight reader.  Who knew!?!?