“I just don't get the whole Galamian scale system thing,” a young colleague confessed to me recently at a gig. “But I have noticed this: my teachers who still play in tune, they practice their scales. The ones who don't practice scales don't play in tune.”
I wasn't surprised by this statement. But I did wonder how many people were mystified by the Galamian scale system, so I will share with you what I shared with him.
Yes, I practice these scales, I teach these scales and I highly recommend them. Here's the reason: The Galamian scales not only work the left hand, laying an intonation foundation in every possible position on the violin, but they provide a daily outlet for working on bowing techniques and problem-solving as well.
There's another reason: Galamian scales are what will keep you playing when you are 80.
And another: They will help you avoid injury.
I never met Ivan Galamian (nor do I agree with everything idea he had or edition he made) but I am grateful for the wisdom of his scales, as taught to me by three wonderful teachers and Galamian proteges: Jim Maurer of the University of Denver, the late Conny Kiradjieff of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Gerardo Ribeiro of Northwestern University.
The scales are written out in Galamian's books, Contemporary Violin Technique, Volumes 1 and 2. I will tell you mostly about the three-octave scales, from Volume 1, as this is a good starting point. (This is not to diminish the importance of the arpeggios in Volume 1 and the double- and multiple-stop scales in Volume 2.)
The three-octave scales each begin and end with a turn (for example, G major begins with G-B-A-G before ascending, and it ends the same way). This serves two purposes; First, playing the third of the scale immediately sets the left hand with fingers over the fingerboard, so that you are simply dropping fingers, instead of flying at the fingerboard. Second, it makes the math work – more on that later.
As for fingerings, in general, you can start each scale on a first finger, or on a second finger. I pretty much start them all on a first finger. At first I thought this was a kind of “cheat,” just going up the fingerboard, using basically the same fingering for every scale.
I've come to view it as a brilliant idea. Why? Because mastering scales this way allows the left fingers to learn spacing for every possible position on the violin. Yes, start a Bb major scale in second position, shift to fourth or fifth position, and then to seventh. The left hand learns its mold for each position.
Galamian also came up with the “acceleration scale,” which is a wonderful way to warm up the fingers and mind for practice or performance. Here is how I put into practice: Set your metronome on 60 – a beat per second. Start with half notes, two beats on every note of the scale, breathing deeply, using the full length of the bow, aiming for purity of intonation and purity of tone (no glitches in the bow). Proceed to quarter notes, two to a bow, keeping the free and open feeling and purity in the bow arm. Then: eighth notes, four to a bow; triplets, six to a bow; 16ths, eight to a bow; sextuplets, twelve to a bow. Then for octuplets, switch to three-beat bows and 24 notes to a bow – the whole scale. (This is where the math comes in, those turns at the beginning and end of the scale allow for the maximum rhythmic divisions).
Did you get all that? If not, most of it is written out on page 5 of Volume 1 (the slower tempi are something I do, not written there). It's written out for a G-major three-octave scale, but the idea is to use it for all the scales. The fact that this is an “acceleration” scale is useful; it truly warms up the muscles in a gentle way, strengthening them at the same time.
Scale work is anything but boring, if you are concentrating. Here are a few aims for your scales: perfect intonation; tidy shifting; absolute bow control and purity of tone; rhythmic precision in left hand; relaxed bow arm; full bows, frog to tip; stillness of the left hand; shifting with the entire hand; and the list goes on.
Once you can play a three-octave scale, you can put it in your service for right-hand work. For example, try an acceleration exercise with spiccato. Do you have the control to do one bounce precisely each second? Two? Try it. In some ways, the slow tempi require more control than does the sautille. And by the way, can you control the speed of your sautille? You should. Can you play at that tempo that is between spiccato and sautille? Try six strokes per second. This can be a challenge.
Other ideas: You can play this scale with up-bow or down-bow staccato. You can play it with dotted rhythms. How's your ricochet? Try going up the scale, metronome on, two to a beat, three to a beat, four to a beat. Maybe you discover you have a weakness; for example, in playing Tchaik 4 you find that your pizzicato is weak and out of control. Do a pizzicato acceleration scale. Better yet, do pizzicato in rhythms. Sure, practice the passage, but if that's not doing the trick, you can use the scale for some basic training.
For me, scale time is foundation time for the left-hand, and it's problem-solving time for the bow arm. I don't watch the clock when I work on scales. Sometimes I just do one simple acceleration exercise – five minutes on scales. Sometimes I go through many permutations and introduce something new, and 45 minutes go by before I realize I'm still playing scales. I'm done when I'm done! The problems change depending on what music I'm playing, be it orchestra music, solo music or chamber music. But by using scales to solve these problems, I can simultaneously practice good, foundational intonation.
So yes, practice your scales! And you are welcome to share below how you use Galamian scales; I haven't even touched on the many more ways that you can use these scales and arpeggios. You can also talk about other scale methods that work for you.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.