Thinking through scales

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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!

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