Why scales?

February 16, 2017

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!

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