Sasami on Practicing Scales
Practice has been a concept drilled into my brain since childhood — a word that floated around throughout my life and shape-shifted as my goals and purpose shifted.
From age five, like a good Korean girl does, I took piano lessons from a strict Korean seonsaengnim (teacher) — the kind of lessons where insufficiently curved fingers were whacked with a pencil and every session started with a tear-laden prayer in Korean.
I grew up in a church with its own rigorous practices. No dating, no cursing, chanting rituals, regular group discussion, reflection and self-evaluation. I played soccer, softball, volleyball, swim, took dance and everything in between — always in environments where practice and hard work equaled being “good.”
When people ask my advice on finding creative inspiration for writing music or how to “succeed” in the music industry, I usually say, “Practice your scales.” I mean practicing in a deeper way. In the sense of humbly doing the work of deep structural understanding — how something functions and how it exists in the universe, often the physics, psychology and historical purpose.
When I went on to study classical French horn at a conservatory, I was required to study music theory, practice scales, listen to the full symphonic pieces from which my excerpts were derived, and envelop myself in the historical context of all of this work.
When I decided I wanted to make rock music, I studied how synthesis and oscillators worked. I watched YouTube videos on snare compression and phasing. I studied my brother’s and other guitarists’ I admired amp and pedal techniques and explored this gear deeply myself. I read Tapeop magazine, went to shows, and asked a million questions. I even practiced actual scales on this new cast of “rock” instruments.
This is all to say that practice is only one element. The other (in my experience) equally important ingredient is letting go! Equally essential is letting the stream of conscious messages that need to be released into the cosmos reverberate out of you and trusting that the work you did to become fluent in the language of your own expression will carry your message forth and into the right arms and earholes.
I always think of music as a language. A multi-dimensional, non-exclusive, transcendent language that we use to speak our truths and tell stories. We have so little control over whether people want to hear our stories or whether our stories are truly original or interesting, I suppose. The only control we have is determining how fluent we are in the language we wish to speak. And that is (for me) the most real part, anyway.
I don’t think that a conservatory approach to practicing music or art is the answer for everyone. Some of the best music is created from the least classically or traditionally trained musicians. In the way, that it is beautiful: to hear taped-together phrases in a broken version of a language that aren’t grammatically correct, but ultimately arrive at the message in a way you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes this haphazard way of phrasing becomes the poetry itself. But I doubt these musicians don’t PRACTICE.
Perhaps their version of doing scales is droning a mountain of gear until they tap into that life-altering tone. Maybe it is having a conversation a day with a new stranger to build their vocabulary of human experience to draw from in their storytelling. It is the work that matters, whatever that work is.
Sometimes you are just mystified by a language that is completely foreign to you and the incomprehensibility itself takes you to that other world. I felt that way about rock music for a long time. About synths and amps and microphones. I feel that way about quarter-tone music and modular synthesis that is way beyond my comprehension!
I studied rock music the way I would study French. I learned the language and then I spoke the sentences from my heart. Discipline is a beautiful thing. Disciplined practice and inherent trust in my own voice is what ultimately paved my road to musical freedom. I have my own personal gripes with some of the restrictive, repressive aspects of my upbringing and musical learning, but I will always be grateful for my deep appreciation and dutiful dedication to practice.
(Photo credit: Alice Baxley)
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