This is probably why many good players develop a set practice regimen. Some begin with scales if for no other reason than to get their fingers limbered up. I practice scales although I confess that I don’t do it as much as I once did. This is because I believe practicing basic diatonic and minor scales kind of imprints their sound on our musical brains, perhaps a little too much. Of course, most Western music for the last few hundred years has been based primarily on these scales so for the beginner or intermediate level player they have great value. For the last few years I’ve been playing primarily solo/instrumental gigs and I work hard on arranging tunes that incorporate a bass part, chords and the melody. Melodies are based for the most part on parts of those scales, if not in true scale-wise motion than certainly using notes in the key. The danger comes when I try to improvise something after I play the “head” (melody, first verse) of a song and my fingers and brain become cemented to those diatonic, in-the-key sounds. The result is often pleasing but kind of dull.
If any of this makes any sense, this is why I don’t practice basic scales much anymore!
There are external factors that affect our practice regimen from obvious things like time constraints and physical ailments to more subtle things like the environment in which we practice (distractions?) and even our mood on a given day. Great players “suck it up” and no matter how they are feeling about issues unrelated to music they go for it anyway. There’s often a psychological benefit to this: music makes us feel good, otherwise why we would we do it in the first place?!
Interestingly, some great players state that they never practice at all. My hero, British jazz guitarist Martin Taylor has said this many times. Perhaps this is because great professional players are performing and recording so much they don’t need to but I suspect there are other factors.
Do you sometimes feel that you play better in the first few minutes you pick up the guitar than after practicing for a long period of time? I believe this curious phenomenon happens because for the first few minutes our brains hear mostly what is GOOD about our playing, not what is bad. I know that in my own playing and to some extent when I record my most creative and satisfying moments happen right away. Later on I begin to notice those little glitches that we all experience in our playing and they take on a higher level of importance. Some may say that’s when real practice begins. But of equal importance with dealing with the getting things as right as they can be is the ability to see – and enjoy – the big picture.
We all want our playing to be as good as it can be. The trick is decide what’s really important and not get bogged down in the minutia. Don’t be too quick to accept mediocrity and sloppiness but see it for what it is. Temper your expectations.
There are some players who do truly enjoy exercises and scales and by-rote practice. If you’re one of those, God bless. Part of me wishes I could be that way and I could very well be a better player for it. But as the years have gone by I’ve come to know that how playing makes me feel (again, the big picture) is way more important than absolute perfection.
Peace & good music,