Scale Practice

Why We Practice Scales

Very few people enjoy practicing scales. That’s a given. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Scales are SO predictable!
  2. And that makes them BORING!!!
  3. There are no melodic leaps to make them interesting — just half- and whole-steps.
  4. The only change of direction is at the top and the bottom of the scale.
  5. Learning a new scale is hard and it takes time. (Actually, it’s not that hard and it doesn’t take that long, but we’re ALL spoiled by the rapid pace of the internet, so if we can’t accomplish something in a minute or two, we get impatient.)
  6. They require mental and physical dexterity.
  7. We don’t play them musically.

So, why practice scales?? Let’s start with the most practical reason for young students — because they’re required at all-region and all-state tryouts. By the time students get to all-state auditions, pretty much everyone can play the prepared music perfectly. Scales and sight-reading determine who’s first chair in the top band and who doesn’t get to go to all-state.

You might wonder why they’re included in auditions; I think it’s because band directors know that’s the easiest way to get you to practice them — the better you are at scales, the better you are at playing music and the faster you learn it.

Practicing scales is equivalent to football players lifting weights or running through tires. I’m sure they’d rather be playing a game, but diligent training prepares them to play their best…and to be able to beat teams that don’t train as well.

I know you’d rather play music, but if you want to win an audition and play really well, you have to train. Scales develop mental and physical dexterity and they develop proficiency in the languages (keys) of music.

The Languages of Music

First, we need to understand that if you take all the important notes of a composition, eliminate the repetitions and arrange them in order, we’ll end up with a scale. When we look at the key signature, we’re identifying which seven notes will occur over and over in the piece and which five notes will be used rarely or not at all.

I think of each key signature as a language — knowing the key signature tells me which notes to expect and I think it all tells my muscles which finger patterns to expect. (Okay, the muscles don’t have memory, but there is a part of the brain that controls the muscles — most musicians call that “muscle memory” and that’s what I’m talking about.)

So, you could say that looking at the key signature identifies the language that the piece is written in. If there are no flats or sharps, it’s written in C (assuming it’s major). Five flats, well, that’s in D-flat (if it’s major), and that’s a totally different language than C. Five notes are flatted and they belong in this key, but they don’t belong in C (although they could show up as accidentals — it’s like a French word, such as embouchure, being used in English).

I didn’t understand this concept for many, many years. Looking back, I thought of everything as being in the key of C and the key signature gave me the “accidentals” I had to use. (I suppose that’s because I started out in the key of C, like everyone else, so flats and sharps were foreign to the key.)

My first clue that there was a better way came up in a jazz improv clinic — the artist said that he couldn’t think in a certain key, so it caused him problems. I had several years of Spanish in junior high school — I did NOT become fluent. Everything I said had to be translated from English to Spanish and when I was listening, I had to translate the other way. I could not think in Spanish. If I’d grown up in Mexico, Spanish would have been easy and I would have difficulty thinking in English. If I started in the key of E, I would find that easy but remembering all those naturals in the key of C would be hard! The bottom line: no key is “hard” but it may be unfamiliar to you.

So, you need to learn twelve “languages” — one for each of the twelve key signatures. (F-sharp is equivalent to G-Flat, C-flat is the same as B, and C-sharp and D-flat are the same. They look different, but they’re really the same.) The training is both mental (learning to think in a key) and physical (training the fingers to “know” what to do without you having to tell them.).

How do we become comfortable in a key? The same way as learning a language — you immerse yourself in it. The more time you spend playing in a key, the easier it gets.

Pick one key (I’d recommend starting with only one or two flats or sharps) and live in it until it’s second nature. Then, pick another key and keep going until you’ve learned all twelve. But that’s so MANY! Not really…it’s only twelve; one hundred would be a lot; you only need to learn twelve. Learn one key a month, and you’re done in a year. Learn one key a week, and you’re done within a semester.

Use It or Lose It

I’ve read that you lose a language twice as fast as you learn it. If you neglect a key for a length of time, it will get rusty. (It’s not gone, but you will have to polish it up. It will go faster the second time around because the patterns are hiding in your mind…somewhere. You just have to find them again.)

It’s best to refresh each key every day — every key stays at your fingertips and you don’t waste time reclaiming lost ground. It doesn’t have to be extensive — playing Herbert L. Clarke’s Second Study in his Technical Studies would be a great way to do this. Or, play every major scale every day. Two minutes, tops…once you know them well.

Clarke’s Technical Studies – Second Study

Use Scales to Multitask

I’ve heard of world-class violinists running through their scales while watching television. That’s how they avoid boredom — they multitask.

Personally, I don’t do that. First, I wouldn’t be able to hear the television, and second, I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow your mind to be somewhere else while you’re playing. That’s all too likely to happen in a performance, anyway, so why encourage it??

Actually, there is a VERY good way to multitask when playing scales, and it will solve your boredom issues while greatly improving your playing. Instead of thinking of scales as the goal, think of them as tools to sharpen your other skills.

If you want to build muscles, the first thing you need is a set of weights. If you buy weights and let them sit in a corner collecting dust, they won’t do you any good — you must use them to work out to gain any benefit. (Pretty obvious, don’t you think?)

How can we use scales like a set of weights? By working on other things at the same time. Multitasking. While playing scales, you can also improve:

  1. Accuracy (perfection is always the goal)
  2. Steady beat (this is far more important than most trumpeters realize)
  3. Tone quality (the most critical part of playing)
  4. Clear, consistent attacks (first impressions of your tone quality)
  5. Intonation (playing out of tune usually causes people to make faces)
  6. Correct articulations (if the scales mix tonguing and slurring)
  7. Musicianship – shape the phrases!! Crescendo on the way up and decrescendo on the way down.

    (FYI, I practiced my scales for sharp tonguing for YEARS! Best thing I ever did, along with practicing the Arban lip slurs to full speed.)

While you’re playing your “boring” scales, be certain that EVERY note is the correct pitch at precisely the right time with a great sound and clear attack and in tune. And, while you’re at it, be sure you are slurring and tonguing exactly what’s on the page.

That’s SIX things to monitor at the same time — there is no brain power left over to be bored. When you make sure that each of these areas is first class, you will sound GREAT!! And great playing is NEVER boring!

American writer, historian, and philosophe Will Durant summed up one of Aristotle’s philosophies with the following statement: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

When you practice scales perfectly, you are opening the door to perfect playing in everything you do — auditioning, playing a solo, playing a concert, you name it. Flawless playing is never boring, either!

How to Practice Scales Efficiently

As I said before, learning a scale is not that hard and it doesn’t take long…IF you do things properly:

  • First, attitude — Henry Ford (founder of the Ford automobile company) said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” If you think scales are easy, they are; if you think they’re hard, they are. Tell yourself that scales are easy, especially because they’re so predictable. (Remember how we thought that was a bad thing? Guess we were wrong!)
  • Second, start SLOWLY — if you are missing notes, slow down. Admit it…you’re making mistakes, so you must be going too fast. The more times you play it wrong, the harder it is to unlearn everything and relearn it correctly. That’s inefficient! And a waste of your time! (The phenomenal trumpet Maurice Andre said that he learned everything slowly because he didn’t have time to learn things fast.)

    I’m sure all of you have heard about the trumpet ego (in a nutshell, it’s “I’m better than you are.”) Quite often we subconsciously think, “I don’t need to go THAT slow — I’m better than that!” And if you think you have problems with that, what about me?? I have a masters in trumpet performance from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in trumpet performance from Northwestern University — both schools are the epitome of great trumpet playing. I have to admit that sometimes I think, ” I don’t need to go THAT slow — I have a doctorate!” because of my ego. That’s where honesty needs to kick in — if you’re making mistakes, admit it, humble yourself, and slow it down until it’s flawless.
  • Third, repeat until perfection is achieved and then speed up.

    Too often, we think marvelous players started learning pieces at full tempo. The truth is, if they had started at full speed, they wouldn’t be marvelous players. Get it right the first time, reinforce it the second time — keep doing it and gradually increase the speed while insisting on perfection. The next thing you know, YOU’LL be a marvelous player!

Once you have mastered the major scales, you need to expand your vocabulary and language sets to include minor scales and other modes…and chords, too. More Scales to Practice