(Photo credit: qiring)

I’ve never figured it out it. If someone knows the answer, please clue me in. It’s this: we are hectored to play scales from early on. Although I’m not a fan of the traditional way that they are approached (octave only, emphasis on major scales and easier keys, going up and down only), there is a good reason for this: a good deal of the music that we play is constructed from scales. All well and good. Except for one thing: the other half of the way music is constructed is arpeggios. But they are not part of the hectoring. They are perhaps touched on, but never asked in, say, high school contest or All-State auditions. Young players are largely innocent of any kind of familiarity with arpeggios, even just major 135s. Your new all-state student may be able to zip through her two octave major scales, but watch what happens when you ask them to play a one octave major arpeggio in all keys. Even a few keys. Even just triads. They just give you a puzzled, pained look that says, nope, haven’t done that, they don’t ask for them in all-state auditions, why should I bother if I’m not required to do it?

Arpeggio in C major

Seemingly paradoxically, most of us do do arpeggios every day – sort of – as part of our overtone flexibility studies – and this is a very good thing, as far as it goes. It’s hard to do too much overtone work – it’s all money in the bank. But while overtone arpeggios are an important part of our daily (re-)calibration of playing the horn, often missing is time on “valve” arpeggios, although they are the yin to the scale’s yang, the other half of technique for the horn or any instrument.

We owe it to ourselves (and to teach our students as well) to build arpeggio knowledge – all types, all keys – deep into our technique at the chromosomal level. It’s money in the bank! Conventional horn pedagogy does (or doesn’t do) a lot of things that make no sense to me, and a lot of that has to do with waiting to do certain things until “later” (late high school? College? Never?), like multiple tonguing, transposition, aural training of various sorts, and: arpeggios. Arpeggio study needs to start early and often. Beginners need acquaintance with arpeggios early on.

How to do it? Start narrow (i.e. mid-range, only a few notes) and after a lot of careful quantity produces fluency (accuracy + speed), then gradually expand the range. For some reason, the dominant model of arpeggio study (such as there is) is multiple octaves, the same “more is better” idea that we force onto scale practice. There is nothing wrong with practice and knowing scales and/or arpeggios over two or more octaves. There is also nothing about learning that way first or making that the only way of practice scales or arpeggios that makes any sense at all.

Better is to use the “neighborhood” model. Get to know the neighborhood (i.e. smaller area) well first before you try to learn the whole city. Really well. We can get to know the neighborhood by giving the arpeggios an “address”, i.e. identifying numbers; in this case, scale step (or degree) numbers. Major triads are 1 3 5 (beginners could start with just 1 3). Start with this idea (i.e. limited range) and proceed to the “language” model of learning: when you learn a new language (as a foreigner or as a baby), you only know a few words at first. So you spend a lot of time with those few words – trying them out, rearranging them, basically just “playing” (in the sandbox sense) with them. Thus the novice learns to communicate and get comfortable with them, fluent with them.

In this way you also do it all aurally – you don’t read the “words” [notes] off paper. We don’t insist that babies not utter a sound until they can read printed stuff first (if we did, they would never learn to speak). Here your new language is arpeggios, so your first “word” is the C major triad, 1 3 5 = CEG (or beginners: 1 3 = C E). Shouldn’t take you long to learn the notes – it’s only three notes! Middle range! Mezzo-forte! It may take a little longer to practice them as a neighborhood, which is to turn the three notes every which way but loose – play them up. Then Down. Then up and down. Then down and up. Then out of order. Then quicker. Then really fast. Try them tongued. Then slurred. Soft. Then loud. First in order, then start on different tones. Go in different directions. Then add different note values (who said you always have to play exercises in quarter notes or 8th notes?) – make it sound like… music! Mix and match all the variables. Get really good at C major – no rush. Then go on to F.

One by one, you add other keys. Do it in this order:

C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G

This is a useful order because every key is the dominant of the next key (key to the right), which is one of the founding principles of the whole tonal system. There are other  useful orders, but start with this.

Move gradually through the keys. Spend more time on the less familiar ones. Be just as thorough with ever new key; give the fluent keys already worked on a quick brush-up every day; spend 90% of your time on the new key. Also: be able to move smoothly (fluently , without hesitation) through all review keys.

Remember: there is no rush. Take your time; pile up the quantity.

Idea: Do this all (like almost any of these projects) with a partner.

More variations/extrapolations of arpeggio studies to follow. Stay tuned!