Thursday, 12 September 2013

Why Scales are Good for You (and How to Practise Them)

Hands up everybody who likes scales!
Hmm, I thought not. The truth is that scales have to be the most maligned part of learning an instrument. They are things that your teacher makes you do because they are naturally sadistic. They are boring, tedious, and often quite difficult, and they seem to serve no purpose other than to use up valuable time that could otherwise be spent having fun playing real music.
I’ve never really enjoyed practising scales any more than anybody else, but whenever I have been working towards an exam I have always put the time and effort in to learn them properly. To be honest, though, I haven’t had a choice. Fear of failure has made me aware that life would quickly become unpleasant if I went to my lesson or exam not knowing my scales. For that reason I have dutifully worked away at them, spending time getting them smooth and even, in three different articulations, and in every key under the sun. I’ve even had a jar full of little slips of paper, each one having its own scale written on it, so that I could pick out a random selection every day to try and perfect.
Then once I’ve completed the exam, I have taken great pleasure in binning every last one of those slips of paper in the knowledge that I would never have to practise those evil scales again. Now that I had that unpleasant business over and done with, I was free to devote my time to the much more exciting business of learning pieces.
And that’s when something weird started to happen. Because after a while I found that I missed scales. I know it sounds insane, but it’s true. I found myself being drawn back to them and actually wanting to practise them. Perhaps you think this makes me a maniac, but before you impose any such harsh judgments on me, please listen to my reasoning.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say not that I missed practising the scales themselves, but that I missed the benefits the scales gave me. I had begun to discover that scales really are good for your playing and can help greatly improve your technique in a number of different areas.
Firstly, if you know your scales then it will make sight-reading much easier. When you come across a chromatic scale or a B major arpeggio or a G sharp diminished seventh, you will not have to spend time practising it because you will already know it off by heart anyway. As soon as you recognise the scale on the paper, you’ll be able to rattle it off immediately and execute complex passage work without a second thought. When you encounter a semiquaver chromatic scale (as often happens, in my experience) it will pose no problem to you and you will execute that dazzling feat of instrumental technique without having to think, let alone having to take the music home and practise it. You don’t need me to tell you how beneficial that can be.
Then there’s improvisation. If you know your scales and arpeggios, then as soon as someone gives you a chord progression to improvise around you will already be ahead of the game. Of course, it helps to understand chord symbols as well, but it’s the scales and arpeggios that will provide the basis of your solos. I often play trad jazz clarinet, which asks for some fairly nifty improvisation if it’s to sound authentic. But because I know my scales, it takes very little thought for me to invent impromptu flourishes based around the chord progressions that are written down in front of me.
Playing a wind instrument doesn’t just involve the fingers, though. There’s also the whole issue of embouchure. Well guess what? Scales can help with that as well. Specifically, I find that regularly playing across the whole range of the instrument, which is one of the primary functions of scales, helps build up an embouchure that is able to deal with high, low and medium notes with equal ease. Particularly helpful are arpeggios and scales in wide intervals, which due to their wide leaps and constant jumping around encourage the development of a versatile and flexible embouchure.
Overall, though, knowing your scales can make your playing more intuitive. Your fingers will move more instinctively, without you having to think about where you’re putting them at every point, and this will free you to concentrate on musical expression, which is, after all, the most crucial thing in music.
By now you will see where I stand when it comes to scales. But as with many things, how you practise is often just as important as what you practise. For that reason I’d now like to consider the best way to practise your scales so that you work most efficiently and reap the maximum reward from the minimum practice time.
First of all, you should practise every scale, arpeggio, diminished seventh and so on over the full range of the instrument. This wisdom goes against what you have had to do for your ABRSM exams, which typically require you to play over a maximum of three octaves. The problem with their approach is that, in real music, scales aren’t always contained in the mid-range of the instrument. If you’ve ever played the reed 3 book to the Beauty and the Beast stage musical, you’ll know that it starts with a descending A major scale on the clarinet, starting on an E above the treble stave. Not much good if you’ve only practised you’re A major scale up to the A above the stave, as required by ABRSM. Or think about Spohr’s clarinet concertos, which regularly call on the player to execute a rising scale up to a high high C. If you don’t play regularly in that range of the clarinet then you will struggle to get the notes out in that extreme register, let alone play a flowing scale. What’s more, the extreme ranges of a wind instrument tend to be the most difficult to play, either because of illogical fingerings or sensitive breathing and embouchure requirements, so it is nonsensical to neglect them in everyday practice. By playing all scales over the instrument’s full range, you enable yourself to be just as confident with the high and low notes as with any others, and this is a faculty that will serve you well in your future playing.
One thing that ABRSM does do well, though, is encourage the player to practise scales using different articulations. For grade eight, you are generally required to be able to play every scale slurred, legato tongued or staccato. This is something that you should adopt whenever you practise scales, for by varying the articulations you prepare yourself for the different contexts in which you will encounter these passages. But why limit yourself to just three different articulations? Try alternating two staccato notes with two slurred, for instance. Or come up with some other obscure articulation pattern that will challenge you even further. Remember, this all contributes to your versatility and virtuosity.
In a similar vein, try playing different scales with different emotions and expressions. Play one in a light, jolly manner, then the next in a serious and dramatic fashion. After all, as I stated above musical expression is a crucial thing in music, so it makes sense to use it even in such mundane exercises as scales. It might even make the things a bit more fun to play.
A weakness inherent in traditional scales is that they only deal in intervals of seconds. To be fair, those are the most common scalic intervals to occur in western classical music, but what about when you are required to play more jumpy, disjunct music? All that practice of conjunct scales will not prepare you for tunes that leap all over the instrument’s range. This problem is tackled slightly by arpeggios, and to a lesser extent by scales in thirds, which feature wider intervals than standard scales. However, there is still room for improvement. If you truly want to be adept at leaping around an instrument, you should ideally practice scales in a wide range of intervals. Scales in thirds, scales in fourths, scales in fifths… even scales in octaves.
Of course, such things soon become too complicated and cumbersome to be played from memory. The thing to do, then, is to notate all the different scales for C major, over the full range of the instrument, in intervals that progressively widen. Then when you want to practise, say, E flat major in wide intervals, all you have to do is change the key signature to include the appropriate three flats and read it straight off the page. This is quite a difficult thing to describe, so I’ve made an example for you. Click here to view it. This is the C major scale written out over the entire range of the flute, in intervals that gradually get wider, through thirds, fourths, fifths and so on, until you eventually end up playing scales over two octave leaps. If you want to practise a scale other than C major, just mentally change the key signature and there you go. Once you’ve had a look at this example then you will see how simple it is to construct similar exercises for any instrument you may choose. You should also see that if you can play such things fluently and evenly in a range of keys then you will be well on your way to achieving mastery of your instrument.

At this point I’d just like to credit William Waterhouse for the idea of the exercise for scales in wide intervals, which he featured in his book ‘Bassoon’, along with many other creative and challenging exercises.
This brings me onto another interesting point, namely whether or not you should practise your scales from memory. Just about all teachers seem to recommend it, but is it really a good idea? I suppose that it encourages the more intuitive playing that we aim towards, where our fingers know where to go without having to read every note on the paper, and in that respect memorised scales are a good thing. On the other hand, though, if you always play your scales from memory then it will surely count against you when it comes to sight-reading, as you won’t be able to immediately associate the scale you see on the paper with the specific series of finger movements you have rehearsed at home. For this reason I am inclined to say that scales should be written down and practised from the page, because that way you will get accustomed to immediately translating written notes and patterns into fingerings, without having to stop to work out which scale you have notated in front of you. The difficulty with this is that if you’re practising all of your scales over the range of intervals I have suggested above then you will have far too many to conveniently write down. To overcome this you may choose to pick just a selection of the most common to notate explicitly, or use an exercise like the one I have just shown you where you only write down one set of scales and then change the key signature.
There is one last thing that I think will make a big difference to your scales, and that is use of a metronome. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because this article is already getting rather long and I have already said a lot on the subject of metronomes in my previous article ‘How to Benefit from your Metronome’. Suffice it to say that all the points I made there also apply to scales. In the long run, practising scales with a metronome will help make them fluent and even, and eliminate hesitations that are otherwise liable to creep in.
To summarise, I doubt that scales will ever be fun and exciting things to practise. However, they are there for very good reasons and they can help to immeasurably improve your playing if you devote the time and effort to them that they deserve. By practising scales in the right ways, you will soon reap rewards that are well worth the investment.
So let me try again:
Hands up everybody who likes scales!
That’s a bit more like it.

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