Fundamentals—scales, long tones, and the like—are boring. OK, I don’t actually believe that, but it’s a pretty widely-held opinion. So why do we do them? Moreover, in a time when we often hear that today’s young musicians “can play the instrument better than ever, but just aren’t musical,” what’s the benefit to focusing on things that are, by nature, basically inexpressive?
In short, it’s all about the music. Ben Kamins is fond of pointing out that we don’t work toward perfect evenness in scales and etudes, obsessively poring over every tiny inconsistency, because that’s how we make music. We do it so that when we’re playing Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Verdi, it is not technical demands, but expressive goals that dictate our musical choices.
So we’re (hopefully) agreed that they’re important, but how can we keep fundamentals interesting? I think it boils down to a specific mindset: Fundamentals provide a tremendous opportunity for self-discovery.
Case in point: Recently, I decided that I needed to practice more long tones. I have never been particularly conscientious when it comes to long tones, because I’ve always found them to be discouragingly difficult. So, much like my longtime approach to reed-making, I just wouldn’t do them.
So here’s what I decided to do: I practiced them for five minutes. That’s it. Every day, I would add or subtract a minute, but I carefully kept my self-imposed time limit so reasonable that I had no reason not to do it. I knew that I wouldn’t attain “perfection,” but by putting in a consistent, measurable amount of work on a daily basis, I arrived at a satisfying substitute. The experience became about seeing how much I could learn in a finite amount of time. It became a journey of discovery, rather than perfection—and that is why we practice fundamentals.