Full-range scales and arpeggios

My students at the university are subject to a department-wide requirement to pass a scale exam, in which they must demonstrate mastery of major and minor scales. The format of the scales, however, is left up to the individual studio professors.

Most of the studios require scales to be played in octaves, but I prefer a different approach. To the chagrin of my students (oboists/clarinetists/bassoonists/saxophonists), I require that they are played in this format:

  1. Start on the first scale degree, in the instrument’s lowest octave.
  2. Proceed upward in an even rhythm (such as even eighth notes) to the highest note in the instrument’s “range” that falls within the scale (according to an upper range limit that I set).
  3. Proceed downward to the instrument’s lowest note that falls within the scale.
  4. Proceed back upward to the starting note.

So, for example, an oboe student’s E-flat major scale goes like this:

I also require arpeggios, following the same rules:

Here is why I insist on full-range scales:

  • It develops practical technical fluency. A major reason to practice scales and arpeggios is to condition fingering patterns that will appear frequently in music. Composers, in my experience, don’t seem to be interested in restricting scalar or arpeggiated patterns to an instrument’s most convenient octaves.
  • Likewise, composers can’t be counted on to time a scalar passage so that the first scale degree always falls on a strong beat, nor to give that note an agogic accent. Full-range patterns in even rhythms encourage learning scale and arpeggio vocabulary in a more meter-agnostic way. (A more complete way of doing this would involve practicing scales and arpeggios in duple and triple rhythms and perhaps others, and starting the scale at different places in the metric pulse.)
  • Full-range scales develop tone, response, familiarity, and confidence in the instrument’s extreme ranges. For example, a clarinetist playing major scales in octaves will likely play the altissimo G exactly once (in the G scale, assuming an upper range limit of G). Using the full-range method, a clarinetist will reach that note in seven different scales, and will reach the nearby F-sharp in the other five.
  • For instruments with smaller “standard” ranges, a full-range approach gets students playing scales in more than just a single octave, such as perhaps the G, A-flat, and A scales on saxophone and oboe.

You’ll notice that I like everything slurred. Articulation studies do of course have their place, but with scales and arpeggios I’m mostly looking for good finger movement and consistent tone, and tonguing can hide some problems.

One issue with this method is the question of how to handle the “turnarounds” in melodic minor scales. For example, consider C-sharp melodic minor on the bassoon, with an assumed upper limit of B-sharp. For the ascending version of the scale, the extreme notes of the scale are low A-sharp and high B-sharp, but for the descending version the extreme notes are B and B. My (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) solution, to give students a uniform way of approaching melodic minors, is that the highest note of the scale is taken from the descending version and the lowest is taken from the ascending version:

This is, to my ears, the least awkward way to play melodic minor scales full range, but of course a thorough technique-building regimen will ultimately require mastery of all possible turnarounds, regardless of awkwardness.

Happy practicing!


8 responses to “Full-range scales and arpeggios”

  1. WONDERFUL post, Bret. I cannot even begin to attest to how much full-range scales have helped me out with technical dexterity, especially in the upper register of the horns! My poor students cringe when I have them do these – but, man, it pays off.

  2. Great post, Bret! I’m also a fan of full-range scales, and execute them in pretty much the same way. Regarding your solution for melodic minor scales, do you have your students practice all minor variants, or only melodic? I’m just curious.

    Last semester, I happened to teach one of my students the fake/multiphonic low A fingering on bassoon. I was delighted when she came into her next lesson and had added that note to the bottom turnaround of her D minor scale!

    1. Thanks, David. Only melodic minor scales are required for the department-mandated scale exam. I do cover the other minor variants with most of my students.

  3. Jonathan Avatar

    Thanks, Bret – that’s an excellent post.

    What’s there is exactly how I did my scales when I did my both of my degrees in clarinet. Having been through it all I feel that it’s a very good approach, but I believe that there are things that need to be considered a bit more if one decides to go this route. For it’s worth, here’s my opinion:

    (1) I wouldn’t have my first or second year undergraduate students do this. For many, learning all of their scales is complex endeavor and just getting the correct notes and fingerings at a moderate tempo is enough – the extended ranges only complicate the process and adds to the confusion of it all. More isn’t always better, especially at the beginning. Yes, it’s a good way to go eventually, but only AFTER they can do all of their scales accurately in two octaves.

    (2) If you do decide to do this with your students, please give them a written out set – don’t just give them an example of one or two and say ‘now go figure out the rest’. For me, that really did nothing but increase my stress level and slowed down the process of actually the scales ‘into my fingers’. And anything that might have been learned by ‘going through the process’ of writing it down, was soon forgotten and long gone after a semester.

  4. Makes sense to me.

    Another thing I try to do is run scales in different modes, i.e. play a C scale beginning and ending on the 2nd degree and so on, to get away from root-based thinking.

    Anyone else out there thinking like that?

  5. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    John, I too play through all of the modes in all of the scales. But I do like extended range scales and find them more practical.

  6. As soon as my students can play their scales and know their fingering I start incorporating full range scales. They are so important for all the reasons you mentioned and for my jazz improv students – you never want to be limited by your fingers what your mind hears and want you to play. :)

  7. Sarah Dale Avatar
    Sarah Dale

    I also use this method and was expected to do this in any scale exercise in University. It’s exhaustive sometimes, but effect for sure!

    I recommend playing a given scale through the cycle without stopping. 4ths, is usually the go to, but 5ths, MA3rds, mi3rds, Chromatic, whole tones are all an option.

    Another permutation to the full range scale exercises I like to is set your metronome to 40-50 bpm.

    Then play each scale using different beat structures over the 40-50bpm pulse. Eg. half-notes, half-note triplets, quarter notes, quarter note triplets, 8th notes, 8th note triplets, 16th note, 16th note triplets, 32nd note, (32nd note triplets if you get really excited about it LOL) … by the time you are done you’ve just played the scale 8+ times in most of the common beat structures you would encounter.

    Sometimes I even use the same 40-50 bpm for whole notes and use that as part of my long-tone exercises.

    Once I get the basic full range scale under my fingers, I start working on every permutation of scales I can think of full-range… obviously STILL working and probably will always be working on it LOL

    3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, octaves
    4 note chords, 5 note chords, 6, 7

    Then you add to that by playing each one…
    UP, UP

    Add taking each permutation through the cycles and you have a whole new set things to work on.

    Happy Practicing, Everyone!

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