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Practicing Scales

The last installment of the Lowdown inspired a question from a reader about the “proper way to practice scales.” That would all depend on your specific goal, whether it be a technical or a musical one. There are innumerable ways to practice scales, and a plethora of material available to give you guidance. At the early levels, much more than how you are doing it, it is much more important that you are doing it. At the highest levels, scale work is about freeing yourself to express deeply and accurately using your instrument.

There are many great reasons to practice scales, but most generally scale work is done to learn or solidify some aspect of instrumental technique and/or gain further fluency in improvisation. The “proper” way to practice scales is highly dependent on your level and your specific goals. Suffice it to say that it is an extremely expansive subject, which would take a large tome to cover thoroughly. Below, however, are some general guidelines to help get you started.

Absolute Beginner

For the absolute beginner it should be a goal to be able to play, without error, all the major, melodic minor and harmonic minor scales in every key for at one octave. (In general, I have found that practicing the natural minor mode separately to be of limited value at this level). Simply going up and down the scale is probably enough at this level, although many add a simple arpeggio for each scale. Something simple. Something like this:

Practicing Scales - Beginner

It is important at this level to use the same fingering each time you play a scale. You should have a single fingering that you use for C major. Of course, there are a million or so possibilities but pick one and stick with it for now.

Beginners often have the wrong impression of scales. They believe that if they know the notes and key (Bb major has 2 flats, etc.) mentally, then they “know their scales.” They don’t. Our goal is more than understanding, it is knowing.

If you can’t play all the selected scales by memory without error or major glitches, then you may understand the scales, but you don’t know them. You have to be able to play them, and play them with ease. If you are struggling mentally or instrumentally, then you aren’t ready to move on.

Your teacher, or a particular method book, may have your practicing variants of this to work on any aspect of your technique. Shifting, bowing, r.h., intonation, vibrato, timbre, navigating ii-V progressions, etc., can and should be worked on during scale work. Your teacher will guide you, but I suggest one component at a time.

Beginner

At this level, I would aim for two octaves straight up and down, perhaps with a root arpeggio, in eighth notes at quarter=60. Put them in an order that works for you. Chromatically, around the circle, as a series of ii-V’s, whatever is appropriate for your goals. At this level, I still suggest you play an individual scale with the same fingering each time. For example, use the same fingering for C major each time you play it until you master it. Once you have mastered one fingering, you can change it up.

A solid beginner should be able to easily play all the major, harmonic and melodic minor scales in 2 octaves. If you can’t, then you have instrumental weakness that need to be shored up before you jump ahead. Not too mention the inability to fluently play in those keys.

Perhaps shifting is uncomfortable or inaccurate. If so, then work on your shifting when you play your scales. Use the scales to shore up your technical weaknesses. For this level of work I generally give the students a fingering. However, fingerings in the Nanny or Simandl Method books work well. Your teacher can help.

Intermediate

At the intermediate level, we are still dealing with two octave scales, but we start to add more interval study and more arpeggio study. Play the scale up and down, play it in broken thirds, fourths, fifths etc. and expand your arpeggios to include different variants. Every variant presents challenges to be mastered.

For example:

Thirds:
Practicing Scales - Thirds

Fourths:
Practicing Scales - Fourths

Arpeggio 1:
Practicing Scales - Arpeggio 1

Arpeggio 2:
Practicing Scales - Arpeggio 2

Again, for each component practiced, pick a fingering and master it before changing things up. Your teacher may also have you working on one aspect of technique: Vibrato, fingering, tone, etc.

At this level I almost always suggest Don Hermann’s Accompanied Rudiments Course. It does not come with fingerings, so your teacher will need to help there. However, it has two components that are superb and make it worth every penny. First, every variant is written out. (I have discovered that if it is written out it often doesn’t get done.) Secondly, and much more importantly, the book comes with piano accompaniment for every example. This helps immensely in developing intonation, both in the ear and on the bass. Once I started using this course, my students developed at a much faster pace. It cut out years of struggle. It is an excellent resource for this level of player.

Next time: Advanced Scale Work and Improvisation