An observer in a wind ensemble rehearsal of mine recently asked why I spent so much valuable rehearsal time (upwards of 30 minutes from a two hour block, less than a week before the concert) leading the group through breathing exercises and chord building.
Why do we do this?
Particularly at the beginning of each academic year, musician after musician returns wholeheartedly to fundamentals routines, which inevitably wane as the stress piles. Ensemble rehearsals begin, recitals are scheduled, juries loom... why do we "waste" this time and energy when we need to learn our "actual music"? Better yet, for those students not majoring in music, why do we have to learn scales and perform seemingly-endless articulation and intonation exercises with metronomes and drones if our goal is solely to participate in large ensembles or play the occasional gig after graduation?
For you, the student, here are my various depths of answers to the questions you dare not ask:
Why long tones?
Level One: Long tones are the most basic thing we do - making a sound on our instrument. If you can isolate the process of producing a sound, you can vastly improve your musical cake before attempting to put any icing on it.
Level Two: Long tones allow us to focus on the most basic setup of posture, support, tone, and intonation. Play a single note with absolute focus on producing the exact sound you want, and your performance consistency will skyrocket. A stunning long tone tapering to silence is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.
Level Three: Long tones are precise and require control to master. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most reliably with control. We must practice control.
Level One: Scales are the building blocks of music, especially Western tonal music. If you can learn the word (the scale) you don't have to sound it out (practice to face-palm status) every time you encounter a particular pattern.
Level Two: Scales allow us to focus on the most basic motions of air, embouchure, and finger technique. Loop a pattern that is more automatic, and you have more brain power to dedicate to the things to which you need to mindfully attune in your playing. A perfect scale, even in dynamic and tone across the full range of an instrument, is one of the most impressive performances I have ever heard.
Level Three: Scales are repetitive and require discipline to master. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most steadily with discipline. We must practice discipline.
Why practice records/listening logs/reflection reports?
Level One: Records remind you what you have done and what you need to do. Memories are fallible, and we lose efficiency by repeating unnecessary work or forgetting to attend to something.
Level Two: Documentation allows us to find trends in our preparation. Perhaps three hours of playing the morning of a lesson leads to a lower quality lesson than you might anticipate, or perhaps two days without practicing scales is too long to reliably recall new patterns. Perhaps what feels like an eternity memorizing a concerto is, in reality, only ten minutes. Analysis of my own practice perception compared to reality is one of the most eye-opening educational moments I have had.
Level Three: Recording preparation, progress, and achievements is reflective and requires self-awareness. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most efficiently with self-awareness. We must practice self-awareness.
So why do we do this?
As a teacher, my goal for you is to achieve the highest you can - as a person and as a professional. I firmly believe that fundamentals not only build a solid foundation of skills on the instrument, but also one of the mental habits and emotional fortitude required to be successful in any capacity. We do this because it will help you develop the control, discipline, and self-awareness you need for your next step in life. We do this because it will make you better, in all aspects of the word.
Now, please excuse me. I need to go practice my scales.