Thinking through scales

"#Oboe" by Paper of Light is licensed under CC BY-ND

My university woodwind students have to pass a scale exam as one of the requirements to progress in their degree program. They have to be able to play major scales and three forms of minor scales, plus arpeggios, through the “full range” of the instrument, from memory.

Many of my students learned their major scales in their school band programs, well enough to have most of them in muscle memory. But some of them are less familiar with the minor scales.

It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of 48 different scales. With plenty of accurate repetitions my students can get to the point of muscle memory for all 48. But in the meantime sometimes they get stuck trying to remember the right notes for the next scale, or get mixed up and play the wrong one.

I find it very helpful to have a mental roadmap for thinking through the next scale, and especially so if I can relate it to something I already have in muscle memory. My map might go something like this, but there are lots of possibilities:

  • C major scale: already in muscle memory, little or no “thinking” needed. As I play, notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C major arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.
  • C natural minor scale: since it’s a minor scale, I’m going to lower the third from E to E-flat. And E-flat major is the relative key to C minor, and I have E-flat major in my muscle memory, so I can play that same pattern of notes without too much thought.
  • C harmonic minor scale: now that I’ve got C natural minor under my fingers, I just need to change one note to produce the harmonic minor: B-flat becomes B-natural.
  • C melodic minor, ascending: this one is just like the C major scale I played a minute ago, but lower the E to E-flat.
  • C melodic minor, descending: this one is just like the C natural minor scale (related to E-flat major) that I played a minute ago. Notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C minor arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.

Another approach that appeals to some of my students is to think in terms of scale degrees: start with the major scale that’s already in muscle memory, and remember that for, say, harmonic minor, you have to lower the third and the sixth.

Having an organized way of thinking through the scales helps prevent the paralysis and overwhelm of trying to conjure up the whole scale from nothing. When my students take their exam, nobody minds if they take a few moments to think before they start playing, but getting stuck mid-scale would be a problem.

As you get better and faster at thinking through the scales, a good way to push yourself is to use a metronome, and limit yourself to a pre-set amount of time before the next scale starts. Maybe a certain number of beats (or, ultimately, zero beats) before jumping into the next one. If that doesn’t go well in the practice space, you know that particular transition is a problem spot, and can reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Happy practicing!

Why scales?

I recently asked one of my (woodwind) students why she thinks I make her practice scales. She didn’t have a ready answer, and I realized maybe I hadn’t been clear about the value of scales. Here are some reasons to practice scales (and arpeggios, and other methodical technical materials):

photo, Aprilyn Podd
  • To develop good finger movement. Scales provide a systematic way to work each finger, and to work them together in just about every combination.
  • To build familiarity with the instrument. A rigorous scale routine makes you use every key and every fingering on the instrument.
  • To get comfortable playing in every key.
  • To explore the instrument’s range. Full-range scales are a good way to make yourself play in the highest and lowest registers of the instrument every day.
  • To provide a canvas for working on other techniques. Ever notice how woodwind instruments articulate a little differently on different notes? How different notes respond differently to vibrato? How some notes tend to be flat or sharp? Learn your scales well, and then use them as a way to take those techniques through every note on the instrument.
  • To train for musical situations. Most music is made up of bits and pieces of scales and arpeggios. Getting those patterns into muscle “memory” frees up mental bandwidth for sight-reading, ensemble, expression, and more.
  • To develop your ears. Internalize major, minor, diminished, whole tone, chromatic, and other modalities.
  • To satisfy requirements. If you are a music student at just about any level, scales are probably part of your lessons, exams, and auditions for the foreseeable future.
  • To have a familiar, habitual technical workout that you can improve upon for the rest of your life, without need for an étude book.

Practice scales every day!

Memorizing scales

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.

Photo, CZMJ

Here are some of the issues that my students have: Continue reading “Memorizing scales”

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: Continue reading “Full-range scales and arpeggios”

How well do you know your major scales?

Can you play them…

…in all twelve keys, smoothly and evenly, the full range of your instrument(s)?

…with a beautiful sound on each and every note, and each note right in tune?

…with poised, elegant phrasing? Continue reading “How well do you know your major scales?”