WHY practise patterns
Tuesday, 9th October 2018
You might have noticed that #WorkoutWednesday’ has become a regular feature on my social media platforms, and so you may be wondering why jazz musicians choose to practise pattern exercises. Scale and arpeggio patterns are a big part of the ongoing journey of most jazz musicians, and there are plenty of books out there which are crammed full of these ideas! Today we’ll briefly cover the main two reasons WHY we work on these exercises, and then next week’s blog will cover HOW to get the best out of them.
Firstly, I definitely don’t use patterns or exercises as a way to learn scales; learning scales is all about simple memorisation. For example, if you know that G major has F# and you are also confident in your ability to do the alphabet (at least from A to G!), then a little concentration will have you playing up and down a G major scale fairly easily in no time. Learning something isn’t just about doing it over and over again (that method does work but it takes AGES!), but instead it’s about relating something that we don’t yet know to something that we do already know. For example, G major is the same as C major except for the change between F and F#, so if we already know C major then learning G major is not hard. Equally, D major is just like G major with a C# instead of a C. And so on. So learning scales doesn’t actually even involve holding a sax!
Scale, arpeggio and pattern practise therefore becomes all about streamlining and fine tuning the execution, building fluency and confidence. This is something we will cover in detail next week. But most importantly, I’m constantly thinking about my sound and my timing because if these two elements aren’t in place then I’m going nowhere! In his famous book ‘The Art Of Saxophone Playing’ (a great read for serious sax students), Larry Teal states “All studies are tone studies. Never divorce tone quality from technique.”.
The other main reason for practising patterns is about understanding and encouraging motivic development in improvisation. Most exercises will take a short melodic idea (called a ‘motif’) and then move it around the horn, either through different chord progressions or simply by transposing it higher or lower (usually by a semitone) on each repetition. To me, this is a kind of ‘laboratory version’ of what I’m aiming to do on stage, as I come up with melodic ideas and then develop them, twisting them through different chords and reinterpreting them in different ways. I’ve found that routine pattern practise helps this to become a really strong habit and so I find myself playing an idea and then instantly thinking about how I can develop it up and down the horn. I’m not trying to create pattern exercises on the fly, but I am always mindful of a melody’s natural need for repetition and development. This is why practising patterns has always been such a big part of my own process, and I’m sure the same is true for many other musicians.
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