How I learned to love scales (really!)

I have a confession to make. I actually love playing scales. I know, I know, what sort of a loser enjoys scales?! But I wasn’t always this way, in fact all the way through school, university and beyond I loathed and dreaded playing scales, putting it off and feeling guilt and anxiety for how often I skipped them.

It wasn’t until I stopped drilling them as a scales and started playing (and listening to) them musically that my mindset changed. And it transformed my playing.  The power of muscle memory is a beautiful thing. Those tricky bars of descending thirds? No problem, I’ve got an exercise for that. How about those ‘oh so perfect’ Mozart semi-quavers? I’ve got you covered! They’re just scales. Once your hands know the shape of the music it all comes together with so much more ease.

It doesn’t need to be painful. There’s nothing wrong with doing a simple quaver up-down scale, but why is that all we do? As teachers, if we only teach scales as a tick box for an exam, we’re shortchanging our students and imbuing the practice of scales with anxiety. Be musical. Be creative.

Here’s a few ideas to get you started.

Change the articulation. The simplest way to add interest is to change the articulation. Even in the grade 1 exams they ask for slurred scales, meaning every note should be joined. But why not add slurs inside the scale? Try joining the first 3 notes only, or letting the 4th and 5th note shine out and slur the rest.

Scales articulation

Rhythm. The next most obvious way to add interest is to vary the rhythm. You will probably want to still keep a steady pulse but rather than only playing straight quavers you could swing them, or add semi quavers, or mix and match different rhythms to create an interesting tune.

Scales Rhythm

Direction.  Why start on the bottom tonic note? Try descending, or starting on the 5th…or 4th..or 2nd…

Scales Descending

Repeating notes  This is another way for you to practice creating your own simple tunes. You could repeat the second note twice, the third note 3 times etc. Or you could repeat every other note. Or you could just repeat the first and last. Use your imagination.

Scales Repeated notes

Practice other techniques  Bill Gates allegedly once claimed that he hired lazy people because they would find the easiest way to get a job done (Bill Gates, if you’re reading this, I’m your perfect candidate). Hit two birds with one stone by practising another technique along with your scales. If you’re practising vibrato you could do a slow rise varying the speed of the vibrato on each note. Or you could start slowly double tonguing notes and then speeding up faster and faster.

Scales Diff techniqies

Leaps Of course, music doesn’t always follow scale patterns, so it’s definitely a good idea to put some leaping patterns in your scale practice. Start off with 3rds, ascending or descending, and then start practising your 4ths, 5ths – add some breath practice in by practising leaps over an octave going up a scale.

Scales Leaps

Transposing well known tunes Choosing a tune you know really well transpose it from memory. Ode to Joy anyone?

Ode to joy in C

Improvisation  But my favourite way to both practice and teach scales is to improvise. Once you’re feeling comfortable with the notes, try and combine them in different ways using the techniques above. See what different moods you can create using different scales and see how what you create changes daily.  I start most days with improvisation, and this unstructured play time allows me to ease into my sessions with joy. I also encourage my students to improvise, and sometimes giving them the space to focus entirely on one factor (for example a scale) without worrying about reading, or rhythms, or the myriad other things normally on their minds, finally helps them ‘get’ it.

How do you practice or teach scales? Do you have any tips for how to remember tricky key signatures? Let me know below 🙂

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