Practicing Scales (Part 2)

This week, Dr. D. continues the series on practicing scales. Check out part 1.

Advanced Scale Work

At whatever technical level you have been playing scales, you have hopefully been incorporating technical challenges into the mix. Mastering various fingerings, bowings, plucking techniques, refining your left hand shape, trills, vibrato, artificial harmonics, etc., should be an integral part of the routine.

At the advanced stage you should be playing major as well as both melodic and harmonic minor modes, and playing in the full range of your instrument (i.e. 3-4 octaves, or more for the 5 and 6 stringers out there).

There is no shortage of technical or musical challenges you can dream up for yourself, and I suggest doing just that. Coming up with your own challenges will help keep you motivated and interested. Look to your repertory and extract a technical challenge from there. For example, a violinist can look at the Paganini caprices and find 10ths everywhere, as both double stops and broken intervals. As a result, they often play their scales in 10ths. They need to be technically fluent in 10ths to play Paganini’s music well. Jazz bassists also find tenths are useful to them, and often do a similar routine.

If you come upon a mental block, need a push, or just welcome suggestions, it can be helpful to see what other people are doing and follow suit. There are countless materials on the subject, but I suggest looking at the “method” books by Jean Marc Rollez (Volume 2 for two octaves and Volume 3 for three octaves) and François Rabbath Vol. 3 (for ideas regarding scale fingerings). After these books are under your fingers, I suggest you take a look at the Carl Flesch and Galamian books for violin (avoid the bass versions) for ideas on bowings, rhythms, and technique. Put these ideas together with your own and you will never be at a loss at how to practice your scales in an interesting and challenging way.

Scales in Improvisation Practice

Ultimately the desire is the same for the improviser and the non-improviser: to obtain a fluency with the technique, vocabulary and grammar of your chosen music that will let you speak coherently, accurately and freely through your instrument. Everyone benefits from straight technique work, but scale practice for the improviser is a few steps removed that of the non-improviser.

For starters, in most improvisational styles you will probably need to add some scales beyond simple major and minor. Jazzers, for example, are fluent in modes, blues scales, pentatonics, diminished, whole tone, and a host of others. If you are going to improvise, you should add the relevant scales to your routine.

Certainly you can improvise before you know every possible scale in three, two or even one octave. In fact, if you are interested in improvisation, you should probably start improvising immediately, at whatever level you are at, and let your improvisation advance alongside your technique. Even if you don’t plan on improvising publicly, I advise working on it in your practice. It reaps abundant benefits for all musicians, even for classical players and straight “readers.”

In addition to broadening your scale repertory, another thing you may wish to do is add some “patterns” to your practice. These are sometime referred to as “digital patterns” and are short melodic/harmonic statements based on particular chord/scales. Create your own, or extract them from great soloists in your genre (jazzers can easily find books chock full of patterns) and play them in all keys. Always be aware of the implied harmonic context beneath, or a part of, the pattern. Play them over riffs or chord changes appropriate to your style. Buy a backing track (for jazz, I love the Jamey Aebersold catalogue), or create you own.

Let’s use Dorian as an example:

If you want to increase your fluency in Dorian mode, you might spend some time practicing the scales, and a few patterns, in all 12 keys with no harmonic background. Once you are comfortable, improvise around the circle of fifths (or fourths, as the case may be) to a metronome click or drum beat with a single chord vamp. You can also play over the changes to a tune like “So What” (again around the circle) that lends itself to the Dorian scale. You may integrate any technical challenges you wish (intervals, double stops, trills, etc.) into this sort of improvisational practice. Finally, you should spend a little time just improvising in Dorian. Think of it as jamming, and see what happens. Stick to this routine for however long it takes (a day, a week…a month) for you to feel comfortable enough to move on to another challenge. You can always revisit Dorian later.

Of course, improvisation, and the subject of practicing it, is a very extensive topic in incorporating much more than just scale work. A subject to delve into more deeply at future date.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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