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:
- Start on the first scale degree, in the instrument’s lowest octave.
- 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).
- Proceed downward to the instrument’s lowest note that falls within the scale.
- 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.