Why Your Ears Might be Failing You

Listening is one of the most crucial skills you can develop as a scratch dj. So why is it that people rarely, if ever, address it? After all, music is an art form for the ears. You’d be surprised how often you’re not really listening and just going through the motions. Yet, if you’re not truly listening to the musical elements you’re scratching over, you will not be nearly as effective as you would be otherwise.

Ineffective Communication

What do you typically do during a conversation? Listen to what the other person is saying, then respond in a way that correlates well with what they just said? Or do you spend more time thinking about what you want to say while the other person is talking, potentially missing key details that they’re trying to convey to you? Often times we do the latter. You can imagine how much potential trouble this can cause. Especially if the topic at hand is very important to the other person involved. By not listening properly and responding appropriately, you’re likely to upset or even offend the other person.

Self Absorption

When we scratch, we tend to be really caught up in everything we know. From all the scratch techniques we have under our belt, to the patterns we have come to depend on. However, a lot of those things may not be effective for the musical situation you’re in. Remember, scratching is not about showing off everything you know within a minute’s time. It’s about expressing yourself in a way that makes sense for the music you’ve chosen to be a part of.

Going back to the previous example of the conversation, you wouldn’t blurt out every word in your vocabulary just for the sake of doing so would you? So why should you be compelled to do what’s basically the equivalent when scratching? This is why many of your listeners will not be impressed or even remotely enjoy what you’re doing. It’s because your communication style has become ineffective due to lack of listening.

A Solid Approach

Let’s say you’re scratching over a typical beat that you would scratch to. You may think you’ve really been listening before, but I challenge you to actually stop scratching and just listen to the beat. Think about what kinds of techniques and patterns would really sound good over it. Take note of how the beat progresses. Is it steady throughout? Does it build up over time or does it mellow out? Is there a melody or is it just a simple drum beat? If it does have a melody, is there a way you can match what the melody is doing rhythmically? These are all just a sample of many questions you can ask yourself to determine what kind of flow will be best suited for the music.

Additional Challenges

Don’t get discouraged about your scratching if you have established patterns you’d like to use that don’t seem to work. This is actually a good thing because often times, simply making minor adjustments in rhythm and pitch can make the difference. Do you need to increase or lower the speed or pitch? Do you need to use less or more notes? Take time to think these kinds of things through more often and it will start to become second nature. The best part is making these kinds of adjustments will actually increase your scratch vocabulary and give you more options for other situations you come across.

You may even be making appropriate choices already, but it’s easy to get lost along the way. You could choose a series of patterns that all seem to make sense for the part of the music you started to do them, but along the way the music pulled a 180 and you were so caught up in what you were already doing, that you missed the change. However, the audience won’t miss it because it’s the overall music that makes more sense to them. That’s why it’s crucial that you listen constantly and listen well so that you can avoid sounding like you don’t fit in.

Silence as a Reset Button

In the earlier stages of your listening skills development, it will often times be easier to simply take many moments of silence in your scratching, so that you can better assess what’s happening with the music and establish consistent, quality musical choices. As time goes on you will instinctively know what works well and what doesn’t, but there will always be new listening challenges ahead so don’t think it’ll be okay to give your ears a rest. Keep them active!

If You Don’t Breathe You May Choke – The Benefits Of Silence

Good phrasing in scratching is a lot like writing a good sentence. If done well it will contain all the necessary punctuation to get your point across. If you have a lot to say in one sentence, it helps to break things up by adding commas (or even parenthesis). Sometimes you may need to blatantly pause… for effect. All of these elements create a conversational tone to what you are writing.

If you choose to ignore punctuation in your phrasing, at best you are most likely irritating the listener. It is very typical for a lot of scratch dj's to do this. They go and go, yet rarely stop to see if the listener is still paying attention. When that happens the listener will usually tune out due to overwhelm. Fortunately enough for us, this issue can be remedied.

Are Your Ears On Break?

It may seem obvious that there are countless ways to use silence in scratching. In all honesty though, there are a lot of ways that I was unaware of. One of the key ways is to become a better listener when scratching. Even in a conversation, if you’re the dominant speaker, it helps to give the person you’re speaking to the chance to acknowledge what you’re saying. This can come in the form of words like: okay, yes, right I see.

When this concept is used in a scratch solo, the other person becomes the beat you are scratching over. If you never pause to hear the beat, it can be difficult to know if your scratching is really meshing well. In fact, if you really aren’t paying attention you can really start to clash rhythmically. This is similar to when someone is ready to respond to what you’ve said and they do, but you don’t notice because you’re still talking. It can be a total train wreck!

Picking Up The Pieces

Clearly, unless you enjoy embarrassing moments, avoiding the above scenario is desirable. So let’s define your goal. You want to captivate people with your scratching and give them an enjoyable and memorable experience. If they really enjoy what you do, they’ll likely be back for more.

Pausing regularly, even for brief moments, is a great way to keep track of where you are in the beat and stay in sync with the rhythm. When this happens you will flow more smoothly. You’ll be more at one with the beat and the listener WILL notice. Even if they aren’t really into scratching, you have a better chance of capturing their interest. If they enjoy the beat you’re scratching over, they’ll likely be more into you, simply because you’re blending in with the beat more successfully.

A Strong Accent

There are defining moments in a beat that you should definitely pay attention to. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by taking advantage of this. One such typical way is to pause at the end of a loud snare drum. If one particular snare drum is louder(more dynamic) than the rest, try pausing as soon as it ends. This will naturally bring out more strength in that part of the beat and your solo.

I get an image of a drumhead being punctured or a speaker popping. It’s also similar to adding multiple exclamation points to your sentence!!! Be wary not to overuse this idea as it can become too predictable, but when used in moderation it can really catch your listener off guard. As we all know, being too predictable equals boredom. The opposite is also true. When no one knows what to expect it makes for VERY interesting scratching.

No Need For Crutches

So as you can see, boredom is not a friend of ours. We need to take extra caution to make sure that we’re not over dependent on silence in our scratch solos. The saying, “all good things in moderation, including moderation”, applies here.

There are times when silence can actually be detrimental to what you’re trying to express. You may have a whirlwind of fast, crazy emotion to unload on the listener. If you were to use silence throughout that part of your solo, much of the impact would be lost. By waiting to add silence after you’ve expressed those emotions, you not only get the full idea out properly but you add extra impact by ending in an abrupt manner.

The Balancing Act

Ultimately we want to control silence. Not let it control us. You do this by developing a great sense of when to use it and how much of it to use. Experimentation during scratch practice is a great way to further improve upon this skill. I highly recommend recording and reviewing your scratching to hear if you are violating or emulating the principles laid out in this article.

It may be painful at times to hear mistakes you are making. However, awareness of one’s faults is extremely vital to effectively improving as a scratch dj. You may not even catch all of your mistakes. If you are new to this concept it can be tough to perceive what is right or wrong. That is okay. Going through the process of thinking things through on your own, will do wonders for your awareness. Thus, you’ll find that you’re increased awareness will lead to improvement in many other areas of your scratching.

Why Confusing Jamming with Practice is Detrimental

Practicing is the most important thing you will ever do as a turntablist. How you practice determines everything you will ever accomplish with scratching. If you practice regularly and effectively you can basically guarantee that you will achieve the results you desire and achieve them at a rate far quicker than someone who is practicing ineffectively. Unfortunately, many do not understand the importance of practice, much less what effective scratch practice entails.

To most, simply putting on a beat and jamming freely over it is what they consider practice. While this is not a complete waste of time, it is certainly not an effective use of practice time and quite frankly is not actual practice. Real practice consists of determining categories of specific items to work on and how much time must be spent on each item in your practice schedule based on your current strengths and weaknesses. If you are not doing this, you are doing yourself a huge disservice.

Avoiding Problems vs. Creating Them

Think back to any conversation where you misinterpreted what the other person was trying to communicate to you. In most cases, that misinterpretation probably led to a problematic outcome. Had you truly understood what they were trying to get across in the first place, you would've had a much better chance of preventing whatever problems resulted from misunderstanding them.

When you confuse jamming with practicing you're essentially doing the same thing. This can be much worse than misunderstanding a simple conversation. Afterall, if you never gain true knowledge of what effective practice actually consists of, you could potentially waste years and years of your life never really achieving many of your scratch goals.

The Flip Side

Keep in mind, there is still a time and place for jamming. In fact, you can have the opposite issue if you get too heavily involved in practicing. While practicing effectively should make up the bulk of your scratching, if you never give yourself time to freely jam over a beat, you're not really giving yourself a chance to flex all the scratching muscles you're developing during practice. Ultimately, scratching is all about expressing yourself and stirring up emotion in your listeners. Thus, it's very important to set aside some time for jamming regularly where you can leave all your concern for the problems you've been working on behind for a bit.

Common Jamming Pitfalls

If you're truly working to progress regularly with an effective scratch practice strategy, it will be tough at times to shut out the inner critic when you're strictly jamming. What I'm advocating is not to avoid critiquing yourself when jamming, but to not be overly critical. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes when scratching. You can take quick mental notes as you encounter problems, but you don't want to start breaking into practice exercises to fix those issues in the middle of jamming or you'll break the flow of your expression. You can always attack those problems later during your actual practice time.

An even better way to not let your worries drag you down during a jam is to record yourself scratching in audio or video and critique your jam afterwards. This will give you a much better chance to enjoy jamming and also make it easier to determine what the actual issues you're facing are. Often times in the moment of jamming, it is much more difficult to figure out what is being executed correctly or not. With a recording you have the opportunity to hear yourself from an outside perspective, as well as the ability to continually review anything that stands out to you as something to be concerned with.

With True Clarity Comes Great Responsibility

Now that you have a much better picture of what jamming and practicing are, you owe it to yourself to start creating a much more effective practice strategy for yourself. Understandably, this isn't always easy to do. Depending on your experience, you may not really know yet what specific areas deserve your attention during practice. To help get you started, I highly recommend you check out this great resource of practice topics I have written about here: Effective Scratch DJ Practice Strategies

While the topics I've covered should be of great help to you, you'll likely have more indepth issues that are very specific to you as an individual in need of attention. If you feel this is the case, be sure to go to this page and contact me directly with your concerns: Scratch DJ Lessons