Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Why Do I Have to Practice My Scales?"

I don't know exactly when musicians first started practicing scales, but apparently it goes back a long, long time. As a young musician, I remember working on my two and three octave scales because my teachers told me to, but I never had any idea of why they were important, much less how I could get the most out of studying them. Once I finished my degree, my scale practice declined. It wasn't until I started teaching that I realized what my teachers had known: scales are incredibly useful tools for developing technical facility and aural skills.

On violin and viola, for example, scales help students learn the geography of the fingerboard, ie, where all the notes are located. Scales require lots of different finger patterns, and learning these combinations of half steps and whole steps helps students play more in tune. On piano, I find learning scales helps students figure out their way around the keyboard and feel more comfortable playing in different keys. Playing scales with both hands together developed piano students' coordination. As for listening or aural skills, major and minor scales form the basis of most Western music. Learning them helps students recognize patterns of whole steps, half steps, and intervals in every key. I think all young instrumentalists can benefit from learning to sing their scales (ideally using solfege, or at least note names) as well as play them on their instruments--it helps to develop their ears.

Scales are important, but in order to really gain the most benefits from them, we need to learn how to practice them effectively. To often students and teachers drill and kill scales until they're bored of them, instead of finding new challenges to stay engaged. As I mentioned in my blog on the book Make It Stick, students absorb and retain knowledge and skills best when practice is spaced out and and variable. For scales, that might mean practicing different scales everyday, instead of focusing on just one scale at a time. Once my students have learned multiple scales, I try to regularly hear a different scale every lesson. I use books like Galamian's Contemporary Violin Technique, which include tons of different idea for rhythmic and bowing variations. Putting different rhythms or bowings with a scale keeps students challenged and make them put in more effort in their practice.

Once I started incorporating regular scale practice into my teaching, especially when I made sure to vary the scales with different rhythms or articulations, I was amazed at my students' progress. Violin students mastered shifting and different positions much more effectively, and piano students developed much more effective coordination. I was so impressed with my students' progress, that I've started practicing my own scales much more diligently. Scales help me maintain my technique in an efficient way. Now that I know how to practice them effectively, I've even started to find scale practice exciting--I'm always looking for the next challenging rhythm or technique to apply to them!

Do you practice scales or use them in your teaching?

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  1. As a singer, of course I also had to practice scales, but my teacher told me to consider them as little pieces of music. He used to play the piano while I was scaling, colouring my singing with all sorts of exciting chord sequences, thus trainng me to phrase, articulate, and, of course, concentrate.

    1. That's a great way to practice scales! One of my teachers told me something similar.