Scales AREN’T lame!
Are you bored with practicing scales? Too bad for you; you’re missing out on what could become the most awesome, useful and fun part of your music practice.
Many music students practice scales for the same reason; they’re forced to do it for their violin lesson. And because of that, there’s a lot of scale bashing going on these days. Bashing by sick and tired music students, who see them as a boring, useless and needless exercise. Even some music lesson websites entice their readers with catchy headlines such as “forget about practicing boring scales, have more fun and make more progress playing songs.”
When you change your mind about scales, you’ll change your musical life. Embrace the scale, and everything about your playing or singing will improve. On the other hand, if you’re unable to correctly play or sing a scale, your musical efforts are doomed. As a lifelong professional musician and teacher, I’ve never seen an exception to that rule.
Invincible musicians almost always love practicing scales. Like singer Tony Bennett, who practices them every day. And he sounds great, even into his 80s.
For me, playing scales is super relaxing. It’s like a form of meditation which makes the rest of my practice (and the rest of my day) feel warm, fuzzy and super productive. It’s usually the first thing I do when my violin comes out of its case.
What’s the point of scales? Simple: scales are the raw materials of all music. Any and every song you’ve ever heard is nothing more than a scale in disguise. Sometimes this idea is super obvious, such as in this video of cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the Elgar Concerto. At three minutes into the music, you’ll hear him play one of the most exciting musical licks ever written, and it’s nothing more than a scale.
Even more famously, the entire Beethoven Violin Concerto uses scales as building blocks. Listen in at 3:28 to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter bring the composer’s simple scalar structure to life. It’s amazing to see and hear. You cannot name a musical selection that doesn’t contain one or more scales as a building block, and if you could, you’d likely never want to sing or perform it. I guarantee you; that’s the truth of the matter.
Putting your scales to work
Here are my top five tips for selecting, playing and practicing scales:
1. Choose the scales from the songs or pieces your are performing. Simple songs may focus in on only two or three scales. Longer or complex music can move through a number of scales in seconds. As performer or practicer, it’s your job to understand what scale(s) the composer is using at any given moment.
2. Start by playing your scales over a sound track, never play them in a vacuum. A simple way to do that is practice over a chord or drone file, such as this A major drone I’ve created for my violin students. Playing scales without a reference point can lead to poor intonation; scales played out of tune will hurt your playing more than it helps.
3. Zone in to your instrument. I train my violin students to listen for a certain “ringing” tone that only occurs when playing your scales perfectly in tune. Wind and brass players can take similar cues from their instruments.
4. Do mindful, high quality work. Playing pitch-accurate whole note (4 beats per note) scales in a slow tempo is a must before you try playing fast scales. Relax. Have fun.
5. Use a book or system that will eventually take you through all of the important scales you need. For advanced players this might mean every scale, every day. For beginning and intermediate students one or two scales a day may be enough.
Money in the Bank
I can’t think of any practice activity with a higher payoff than playing scales. Scales improve your pitch, tone and technique all at once. They unlock the toughest passages in your favorite music. And they give you a sense of mastery in every part of your music.
Now, go enjoy a scale or two. Do it now, and every time you practice. And you’ll discover benefits that never even crossed your mind.
About the Author
Bill Alpert is a performer, teacher and author with a unique focus on personal development and mindfulness viewed through the lens of violin study. Mr. Alpert's resume includes recordings, performances and film scores with artists such as The Moody Blues, Pepe Romero, Tina Turner and Johnny Mathis. The co-founder of the award winning Alpert Studio of Voice and Violin in California, he is professionally active in the American String Teachers Association and the Suzuki Association of America.