Practicing scales and aging

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Larry McDonald
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Practicing scales and aging

Postby Larry McDonald » Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:36 pm

Hi,

I guess it's scale season again.

I studied scales religiously for years. Some decades ago, I reduced my scale study to two weeks in August and two weeks in January (plus whenever I felt I needed to do them, like now). I can maintain 132-138 bpm (sixteenths) at all times with repertoire, and during my 2 week refresher, I can get to 144 and often 152. Unfortunately, this is getting harder to do every year.

I'm no spring chicken anymore. I turned 50 this year and my hands are getting stiff. Maybe I'm feeling 32 years of professional playing/teaching. (I also delivered pianos for 20 years). It now takes me 20 minutes to warm up, just to be able to play a clean etude. I also have a trigger "m" finger in my right hand. It hasn't slowed me down but there are mornings where it is really stuck.

The reason I give this repulsive personal info is because I may need to adjust my scale study and warm-ups over the next few years, for aging reasons. I thought I might have to go back to a lighter, regular practice instead of my robust, semi-annual refresher. Dang!

My question is for the seasoned citizens who keep up a concert program, what are your experiences with aging and scales as you get nearer to pension time? Do you do more scales or less? Lighter or more robust? Or none at all?

Geriatrically yours,
Larry McDonald

zinsmeis

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby zinsmeis » Sat Jul 19, 2008 5:02 pm

Am not a professional, but I can identify with the aging problem. Happen to have same trigger finger as you mention. Also require more warm-up than in the past to get up to speed.

Don't have any suggestions, but I find that as I decrease in speed I pay more attention to purity of sound and putting more feeling into a piece.

However, don't despair. I knew a professional banjoist who played well into his 90's, and I couldn't tell any diminished performance.

By the way, 50 sounds young. I'm 68.

Sean

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Sean » Sat Jul 19, 2008 5:18 pm

Lare,

I used to be a decent guitarist until an injury stopped me in 1993. After fiddling around with it, I picked the instrument up seriously again in the fall of 2005. I'll be forty this November. I practice scales everyday.

Now, I don't claim to be able to play the pieces I used to be able to; I can't give the time. I make do with 3-4 daily practice hours now. But I know I can play scales faster now and with a wider tone palette than before (I practiced scales 4 days a week prior to the finger injury).

What kinds of things do you do with scales in these two 2-week periods?
And is this an issue stemming from the Fuoco?

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Larry McDonald
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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Larry McDonald » Sat Jul 19, 2008 5:43 pm

Hi,

No, it's not an issue from Fuoco. That piece was much better today (116 bpm) and I expect to have it ready by September 1st, even though I was much less optimistic yesterday. Speed happens.

The question isn't a new one for me. My hands have just gotten stiff over the last 5 years or so. And like you, I had an injury (with a chainsaw) 2 years ago and wasn't able to use my left arm for most of 9 months. Everything is as good as new now, but when I started playing at my restaurant gig in November, I noticed a lot more stiffness in both hands. It hasn't gone away. (It was a trying winter as a guitarist. I lost my hearing for a few weeks, too).

In the two week period, I work a single scale for about 45 minutes, concentrating on synchronizing the hands at first. I use three fingerings, "i-m", "a-m-i" and one new one that I've never heard discussed, which is an experiment and will not be made public until is fails or succeeds. A few days later, once the hands are sync'd up, I work speed and volume. I will use HVL #7, or something like it, as an application etude following the scale work. Scale speed without application is simply a parlor trick.

All the best,
Larry McDonald

Sean

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Sean » Sat Jul 19, 2008 7:52 pm

Larry, maybe you should talk to a physical therapist about some arm/hand/finger flexibility interventions that will improve the range of motion.

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ramsnake
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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby ramsnake » Sun Jul 20, 2008 1:33 am

I rarely practise scales in any sort of routine at all. I prefer a repertoire orientated method for maintaining technique using specific pieces, passages out of pieces, the odd piano arpeggio and a jolly or two.
I think scales are overated for technique maintenance as their actual presence as such in the repertoire is pretty small so a lot of effort is going into practising a skill that is narrow in it's focus and actually is necessarily not going to be used terribly much! :?
55, still going strong and getting closer to the way I used to be able to play when I was a bit more serious about the whole thing thanks to my resurrectedintersted following the discovery of Delcamp. But, not too fussed if I don't get there, as I am revelling more in my vastly improved interpretive skills since then! Must be an age thing! :D
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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Nick Cutroneo » Sun Jul 20, 2008 3:44 am

ramsnake wrote:I think scales are overated for technique maintenance as their actual presence as such in the repertoire is pretty small so a lot of effort is going into practising a skill that is narrow in it's focus and actually is necessarily not going to be used terribly much! :?


You know its funny, you certainly are right, a majority of the repertoire don't have long 2 and 3 octave scales. So should we just never practice them? What about those few instances where we may (at some point in our lives) encounter them...shall we wait to develop that technique when that day arises to play a piece like the Chaccone?

While I am not in the age group being asked about in this thread, I'd like to think that I would be able to partake in the conversation at hand.

This idea of developing and maintenance of a technique you may never use ever in your life reminds me of discussions I'd have with rock guitar players. Guys saying, "Why do you need to be able to play this fast, or do this lick, or any other technically challenging idea on the guitar?" I always answer with this responce, "Because I don't want my technical limits to limit my musicality." The same goes for classical guitar, if not more. Perhaps because its fresher in my mind, but I remember quite vividly my playing and how it was effected by NOT practicing scales on a regular basis. I have recordings to prove it (and not in the good way). I also know how much easier it became to play the instrument as I started to make scalar practice part of my everyday routine. We aren't talking about the development of speed here, but rather just the ability to just play the instrument and the sound being produced. How easy my fingers would work even outside of the realm of 'pure' scales. The change is almost instant, the fact that everyday I was constantly refining and watching over my technique meant that it was kept in check on a regular basis.

Sure this can be done with musical excerpts. And I also use "studies" either from pieces that I'm currently playing OR from old/new repertoire that I'm not planning on doing in concert. However, what I've found by ONLY using musical examples is that (at least for myself) I'll get too preoccupied by musical issues at times with the piece that some of the technical things can and will be missed. This is why I work with the 'boring' scales. And this concept is constantly evolving, and JUST changed for me this summer. I'm no longer working up small burst groups, but rather for 20 minutes with rest, then 20 with free I'm going through my whole burst pattern, going from 5-note groups all the way through a 2 octave scale. I can tell you that by doing it for only one week with HALF the time spent on it (I was doing 20 minutes for the whole "workout" rather then 40) that my scale technique has improved. I'm continuing on my quest to be able to play a 3 octave scale all the way through without feeling like I've left my fingers in the other room, but I've lowered the amount of time to 10 minutes for each stroke. Sure, this is a FULL hour on 'boring' scales alone. But the one thing I've found incredibly useful is to break up the hour chunk throughout the day, almost as a way to wind down from working on large works (things like Bach and the Rossiniana can kill a man). I'm also using currently Etude 7 (Villa-Lobos) as my scale study, and when that's completely, I'll probably either pull out some of the smaller scales within the Rossiniana or excerpts from the Chaccone or the Aranjuez.

Anyway, to get back...a little bit...onto topic, I think that some kind of regular work on scales in a setting that isn't going to distract you from the task at hand is incredibly important, and I would think for the aging guitarist even that much more important! I think of it as a daily workout for my technique/hands so that they are in shape. 10 minutes of basic scale work is better then nothing. Obviously the more you do the more you'll get out of it, but then it becomes a practical thing. Some people don't have an hour to devote to scales. It just so happens that for me currently, I'm able to do so, so I am. We'll see what happens as the school year comes along to kick my butt. I think this regular maintenance/workout will only help you to be able to refine what you've already learned and keep your eye on it. In my short while as a guitarist, I've found nasty habits that I thought I corrected come back to bite me in the least desirable times. Never take anything for granted, and never assume anything about technique, that's what I've come to learn. Treat your fingers and hands like they're kids...and if you do so, unlike kids they'll listen!
Nick Cutroneo - Classical Guitarist, performer/teacher/suzuki instructor

wchymeUS

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby wchymeUS » Sun Jul 20, 2008 3:55 am

I'm not 50 yet (but I know I know... it's coming) so it's hard to give you a credible answer... but whereas I believe we cannot escape the aging of our body and all the consequences of this, you should not under estimate the power of your mind.
After years of practicing, you being 20 or 50, there is a mental erosion. Let's face it, it's boring isn't it? Scales are probably the most boring but also the most interesting exercise. How can you enjoy your scales at 50 when your mind is already in a bossa, a choro, a chaconne or whatever you're currently working on!
I believe that practicing deserves mental rejuvenation. You have to find new motivations for practicing, and practicing your scales. Then, as stiff as you think your hands are, they will obey your mind power.
My 2 cents

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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby ramsnake » Sun Jul 20, 2008 3:59 am

Yeh I agree also with most of what you say and funnily enough, your having mentioned it, the scale section out of the Chaconne is my current piece orientated scale practise fodder.
We all have to find our own way I guess and an hour of scales would kill me I think! So well done to you! Probably would have done that back when I was your age but not anymore! :D
And in relation to electric guitar - the older I get the more I am interested in finding ways to say more with less notes! :D
Last edited by ramsnake on Sun Jul 20, 2008 7:04 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Rick714

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Rick714 » Sun Jul 20, 2008 4:57 am

Ok granted, this reply is much less deeper than those above, but if you can play scales as well as I suspect you can, then I would think you can also play some nice arpeggios. Other than loosening up the fingers, why do you have to play scales beyond that? Also, not a shrink here, but I've played one on t.v. (not) but pick one "scalely" tune to warm up with (like a nice Bach Dm Prelude) and your fingers will be warmed up in 2 minutes. The 20 mins is in your head. And remember how little pressure it takes to stop the notes; relax those hands. Sorry for the rant, just hopefully putting a helpful 2 cents in.

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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Nick Cutroneo » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:12 am

Rick714 wrote:Ok granted, this reply is much less deeper than those above, but if you can play scales as well as I suspect you can, then I would think you can also play some nice arpeggios. Other than loosening up the fingers, why do you have to play scales beyond that? Also, not a shrink here, but I've played one on t.v. (not) but pick one "scalely" tune to warm up with (like a nice Bach Dm Prelude) and your fingers will be warmed up in 2 minutes. The 20 mins is in your head. And remember how little pressure it takes to stop the notes; relax those hands. Sorry for the rant, just hopefully putting a helpful 2 cents in.


It's true, for guitar there really is virtually NO warm-up time (which is why preparing for a concert consists of me running the program 1st thing in the morning). HOWEVER, my post had nothing to do with warming up (I can't speak for the others) but rather keeping track of the development and maintenance of technique.

And last time I heard, the Bach Dm Prelude doesn't have scales...but is more of an arpeggio...unless there's another Dm prelude you're talking about.
Nick Cutroneo - Classical Guitarist, performer/teacher/suzuki instructor

AsturiasFan

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby AsturiasFan » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:28 am

I'll give 10 to 1 odds that you have arthritis. Have you seen a doctor? I believe arthritis is treatable through drugs and therapy. A lot of lay people think that over-the-counter glucosamine and chondroitin is a cure. It's pretty expensive but would be worth it if it works. A doctor at http://www.emedicinehealth.com/arthritis/article_em.htm thinks it's worth a two month try to determine whether it works for you. The research isn't conclusive yet, but it supposedly helps repair the cartilage of the joints. A Delcamp search of glucosamine returns two pages of hits.

Edit: Well, from subsequent posts Lare may not have arthritis after all. So everyone but me gets 10 pts.
Last edited by AsturiasFan on Sun Jul 20, 2008 8:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Sean

Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Sean » Sun Jul 20, 2008 11:03 am

I suppose it could be arthritis, although I'd look into a lack of flexibility first. An occupational therapist consultation could not hurt.

For me, I do have specific goals for both the left and right hands during scalework. And I know it makes a difference. I look at scalework as an efficient means of maintainence. In the past, I developed exercises from the pieces I played only. But my technique suffers. And by practicing scales for 10-15 minutes daily, with specific daily and weekly objectives, I've made progress. Do any of my pieces have large 3 octave scales? No, I'm not currently playing any Rodrigo pieces (laugh there, folks, that's a joke). For me, scalework helps build and maintain a technical basis.

Take a piece I'm learning now - Assad's Fantasia Carioca. It ain't exactly a cakewalk. Are there out-and-out scales in the piece? Not really, but there are scale fragments within the piece. I like to take the fragments and break them down into steps. This has helped me tremedously because it forces me to focus on each individual movement of each finger at work. My job is to make each of those movements as efficient as I can. Could I do this without practicing scales? Sure. Is the process much faster and more succinct due to my work on scales? I believe so.

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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby Cincy2 » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:15 pm

I'll jump in here to recommend glucosamine chondroitin as a supplement to keep your joints healthy. I've been taking it for the last ten years. I'm 56 and my joints/fingers don't limit me in the least. My knees and back also feel great. Don't know if there is a cause and effect relationship here, but the cost is small and there is clinical evidence to support it's efficacy. The other thing I've learned about the aging body is that if you don't stretch daily, you will end up frozen stiff. Hamstrings, illio-tibial bands, achilles tendons, hip flexors all require maintenance to keep you mobile. The same must be true for fingers, forearms etc. I stretch those too.
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remmus
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Re: Practicing scales and aging

Postby remmus » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:03 pm

Summer here. I also just turned the big 5-0 this year. But, it has so far posed no problems as far as I can detect. I feel pretty much as if I were still in my twenties. I can even run further now than I did back then. But what does all of that have to do with scales? Nothing really. Just that we all age differently.

Each person is different and requires different ways of preparing themselves for specific pieces, or concerts, or just to be able to play a simple etude cleanly, no matter what their age. I have never been a big fan of scales and agree with much of what Ramsnake already stated. But if scales really help you perform better than by all means please keep practicing them. For me, I've found what works best - the spider exercise up and down the neck several times followed by some simple pieces. Then I'm pretty much ready for the heavier material. Also, I rarely play in public anymore so I don't have that onus on my back like some of you.

Also, my personal take is that "speed" has become the brass ring that everyone nowadays seems determined to grab. Speed is fine - up to a point. If you want to win a competition then play blazingly fast pieces, though I hope that changes some day. But obsession with it can also be not so good. Please don't become so determined to be lightning fast you forget that the overwhelming beauty in slower, graceful, passionate and tender playing. If I want to listen to just blazing fast speed with little connection to tone, I will put in a Flamenco CD - Sabicas, or Paco de Lucia or someone like that. Don't get me wrong here - I love Flamenco, but most of these guys started speed drills while still being breast fed. Most of us didn't.

I train for certain pieces. Much like I would train for a 5K run. If I want to play a tremolo piece I will first go back and practice tremolo exercises. Over and over and then start slowly with the piece itself. I don't practice tremolo normally, but now I have started a new piece with it and I of course I want it to sound good and even. But as far as scales go, I do play them, but only once or twice a week and not necessarily for speed but for accuracy.
"...it is awfully easy to become content with a level below what one is actually capable of." - Carl Peter


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