Knowing vs. Doing

There is a big difference between “knowing how” to do something and actually “doing” it. I was a lazy day-dreamer as a kid and young adult, one obvious result being that I was a “straight-C” student through high-school. I now see this as having been a true “learning disability,” back before those were a thing. When I think back on my tortured learning path, I see many examples of being caught somewhere between the two; intelligent enough to “know” things, but too lazy to “do” anything about them.

What banjo skill I displayed was simply a manifestation of a “natural gift” for chord melody. As an older adult who is tired of the limits of that gift—and is now afraid of becoming a bitter old man (“if only I had done this when I could have”)—doing has become my priority. All this at an age where society says we should relax and rest on our laurels; well, I ain’t got none to rest on! 

I will use the subject of scales (and all that includes) for the central example in this blog; realize that they are just the tip of the iceberg of music theory. Don’t hate them! If you do, you’re hating on music’s prime star. . . As a musician, though I was primarily a natural chord melody banjo player (where scales seem to have no place), I also played saxophone in the school band. Our band director never emphasized scales; he should have—that is if he really wanted us to learn anything about music and have a future in the “legit” music industry. I would not have had a career in the Army Band field (and my great retirement package) if I hadn’t learned my scales and how to read music.

Though they weren’t emphasized, scales were a familiar warm-up in band, and of course, were an inescapable element of the music we played. If you have listened to any amount of Euro/American music—actively or passively (and who hasn’t?)—you are familiar with the sound of scales and the music their variations produce! Our music literally would not exist without them! So, ask me again why they are so important; until you have your own ah-ha moment, “because I said so” will have to suffice.

The big motivational issue as I see it now is in knowing how to play a scale versus how to use it in music; knowledge means nothing without application. To begin with, if you don’t know how to do it, then you will never know how to use it. Beyond that though, if you know how but have not practiced doing them—and by “practice” I mean until your forearm aches, your fingertips bleed, and your mind explodes, then do it all again the next day—then simply knowing means nothing.

“Oh, I know how (I’m an expert, really), I just choose not to.” Well then, and you somehow hope to improve as a musician? We are so geared toward instant gratification in our society; “okay, I played them [once]; what’s the big deal? Why am I doing this again?” Some things take time; music is a lifetime study.

After almost 40 years of “knowing but not doing,” I finally started on scales/arpeggios et al in earnest with the publication of Beyond Chord Melody. That book was not a manifesto of “where I was at the time,” but of “where I hoped to be someday.” Sure, I knew what they were and how to do them (or how else would I have written a book about them?), but I had yet to take the dedicated path of practice/memorization/application.

In reality, I am now (10 years later) finally at the third element of that equation; I am now learning how to apply them (which is what Volume II will be about). Part of that effort is simply understanding how they are used in the music that we already play; again, music as we know it wouldn’t exist without them. The scale monster is always there, lurking in the shadows, quietly guiding your music and waiting for the day when you recognize it and make friends with it. I won’t lie; it’s an ugly monster!

To begin with, realize that the guys/gals who wrote the songs we play certainly knew how to apply them—or how else would they have become composers? Sure, there’s a bit of an uneducated natural gift involved with some of them, but in most cases, that gift is guided by knowledge (whether instinctive or book-learned). Gershwin may have been a natural, but he was also a highly-trained Classical musician and theory whiz. Would he have accomplished what he did without that education? I seriously doubt it! Just as I doubt Harry Reser would have been as good as he was without his Classical training.

To recap, scales learned add to your theory knowledge; scales practiced add to your musical skill. Scales observed but avoided do nothing for you but make you more afraid of them! Don’t just know them; do them!

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