As I’ve mentioned before, my university students are subject to a scale proficiency exam. Most arrive at the university “knowing” at least some major scales, but most of them will also have to learn at least a few new ones and maybe put some old ones into a new format. For their exam, the scales need to be memorized well enough to play three randomly-selected major ones, and three randomly-selected melodic minors.
For some students, there are technical barriers to this: untrained fingers, insufficient familiarity with alternate fingerings, or tone production issues in extreme ranges. Some also struggle with nerves or other psychological baggage (“I’ve never been good at scales, Dr. P.,”). Even among students who are moving rapidly through advanced repertoire, and have all the necessary facility to play the scales, there are some that find the memorization to be very difficult.
Here are some of the issues that my students have:
- Playing too fast, too soon. While accumulating the many, many repetitions necessary for mastery, it’s crucial that the repetitions are totally accurate. I sometimes see a student start a scale at blazing speed, make a mistake within the first five notes, start over, and repeat. (Some determined but misguided students will repeat this cycle indefinitely until I stop them.) Two possibilities present themselves here: first, the student is making the exact same error over and over, cementing the bad habit; or, second, the student is making a variety of errors, developing no habit whatsoever because there is no true repetition. I beg them to slow down—whole notes at 40bpm are an acceptable starting point if that is what it takes to play the scales the same (correct) way every time. Use a metronome to enforce disciplined tempi.
- Substituting academic knowledge for technique. I do expect my students to be able to “spell” their scales. Some, when I ask them to play, even like to spend a moment thinking aloud about the key signature or interval pattern. Some can even successfully pull off a scale that they haven’t practiced well by thinking through the notes while they play, but this is risky behavior when the pressure of an exam is applied. “Knowing” the scales academically is one thing, playing them is another. They need to be practiced until the fingers can do them on auto-pilot.
- Going one way only. Some students can play a scale smoothly and accurately going up, and then stumble through the descent. Unfortunately, the ascending and descending versions, even when the pitches are identical, are separate feats and must be practiced equally. No shortcuts. You can probably recite the alphabet very quickly, but slow down quite a bit when saying it backwards—you haven’t practiced the backwards one as much.
For successful, useful, technique-building scale memorization:
- Go as slowly as you need to go to get total precision every time. Speed up gradually, but never at the expense of accuracy.
- Repeat many, many, many times, over the course of weeks, months, and years. Plan to spend a lifetime polishing this crucial part of your technique.