A Year of Scales

September 26, 2016 at 04:30 PM · So I told my teacher that I wanted my technique to improve exponentially and he recommended that we just strictly do scales and its variations for the next year or so. Will my technique dramatically improve if I just focus on scales for a year?

Replies (30)

September 26, 2016 at 05:13 PM · Technique / musical expression is not either / or; working solely on "technique" taken out of musical context is a waste of time.

I am a big proponent of daily scale practicing, but practicing only scales does not make any sense to me.

More useful approach would be to identify weak spots and work on them one at a time, with gradual and appropriate increase in difficulty / challenge.

Too little challenge, no progress.

Too much challenge, no progress.

I am not sure that violin technique can improve "exponentially"; there are ebbs and flows, jumps and times of gestation, plateaus and bursts of creativity.... ideally you want your technique to improve steadily.

Do not forget that you need to be keep being motivated to play violin. If there is only work and no enjoyment and fun, why bother?

Hope someone more experienced will chime in.

September 26, 2016 at 05:15 PM · Yes, especially if you are not proficient in scales to begin with. It has and is helping me in finger patterns in all positions, especially 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. However, practicing scales exclusively might not develop you musicality or rhythm. Perhaps there are scale variations that do, but not as well as playing "real" pieces would.

September 26, 2016 at 05:32 PM · This is your teacher who told you not to listen to older violinists? Either you have a habit of misunderstanding him, or he's just kind of crazy.

Technique has to be placed into context, and while fundamental exercises can help immensely (not just scales, note), they need to be combined with actual music work.

Spending most of your time on technical work, rather than your repertoire, can immensely improve your playing in even a short amount of time, but you have to be incredibly focused on the exercises, not mindlessly repeating them. You can only do so much focused work in a practice session.

September 26, 2016 at 05:38 PM · Yes...if you can figure out how to play them in tune, with good tone quality, no excessive tension, and can apply the concepts from the scales to the pieces you play.

September 26, 2016 at 08:09 PM · Yes this is the same teacher. I don't think I'm misunderstanding him, he said that when he practiced only scales for a year with his teacher his technique grew greatly

September 26, 2016 at 08:22 PM · Okay, this is a tougher one to explain away. :) I concur that this is not a good idea. Scales are a lifelong project, IMO; it's not as though you master them and then move on from them. I also don't think that only playing scales would actually improve even your scales past a certain point.

Scales and etudes are essential foundational work for classical playing, but they should be balanced with actual music. Your interpretative skills will also atrophy if you don't practice them. And I can further assume you wouldn't be getting performance practice during this time, which is also problematic.

September 26, 2016 at 08:23 PM · I think playing nothing but scales will not be something you can concentrate on for a full day's practice. I play scales every day (though last few weeks has been a little spotty), and my teacher listens to my scales in every lesson, but I do technical exercises, etudes and various pieces too. I would agree that focusing on them is a great idea, but variety and practicing other skills will probably help you grow even more.

Thing is, no one here is in a great position to second-guess your teacher, since we don't have the full context. Given that this is the second post you've made questioning your teacher's guidance, it sounds like you aren't fully confident in what your teacher is saying. I would think hard about that.

September 26, 2016 at 08:25 PM · Well, you'll get very good at playing scales. And this may be entirely justified, depending on the you--where you are, what weaknesses you have, where you intend to go. It's almost impossible to solve basic bow grip/bow use issues when also practicing other etudes and repertoire because then you get distracted.

It really depends on the practice techniques your teacher has you apply, and whether you are able to follow them (assuming they are useful) without burning out or getting bored. The scales have to played in a very purposeful, methodical manner, with a great deal of emphasis (like 50%) placed on bow use. A clearly-laid-out set of groupings and rhythms should be given by your teacher. If he says to just go and practice them without taking you through a well-defined method, it may not be effective.

September 26, 2016 at 08:28 PM · The question is whether you can do this without going batty. Scales can get pretty tedious if that's all you do. Yes of course you can mix them up with "variations" but they're still just scales.

The other thing that I've discovered about scales -- and forgive me for being "master of the obvious" here -- is that how much you benefit from them depends very greatly on how you practice them. So you need detailed weekly guidance on that. Get "Scales" by Simon Fischer and read that. That's a phenomenally good book. (Knowing your teacher's predilections, he'll probably recommend you burn it and only practice from Flesch.)

I would certainly recommend including at least some studies. With a Kreutzer study, just trying to get it to sound good will lead to improvement in your technique. The sign of a good study is one that stealthily improves your technique even though you think you're only focusing on musicality.

Or, maybe you can work out a practice schedule with your teacher that might include scales as well as shorter repertoire pieces that are rich in scales and scale patterns, as well as selected studies which perhaps focus on scale and arpeggio technique (several Kreutzer, Dont, and Mazas studies come to mind).

September 26, 2016 at 09:14 PM · Scott, I could *maybe* get behind that for a summer, but a full year?

September 26, 2016 at 09:53 PM · The goal an aspiring violinist should work towards is to develop an expressive technique. The ability to play a scale in tune is only one element of many towards this goal.

September 26, 2016 at 10:09 PM · Maybe your teacher just wants to have an easier lesson time slot with you ;D

September 26, 2016 at 10:26 PM · A year of scales only sounds like a very efficient way to get a student to quit.

I agree with Bruce.

PS at no point in my life have I ever practiced *only* scales ( though I have certainly done a lot of them) and I seem to have done OK.

September 26, 2016 at 10:48 PM · Bruce,

I welcome being reminded about the important goals.

September 27, 2016 at 03:36 AM · I'm a big believer in scales and exercises for myself and for students who are ready. But in the learning process (more than in the maintaining process for a pro) etudes are very important, too. And what about pieces? Do we not derive technical benefit from them, too? I'm not just talking about an obvious passage in say, thirds in a Paganini concerto. There is the very important aspect of applied technique: what subtle things must we do in any number of less than violinistic passages in say, sonatas in Beethoven and Brahms to narrow the gap between what is ideally in our mind's ear and what's coming out of the instrument?

It's deadening to only do scales for very long stretches. We have to develop our musicality. The challenge of trying to get a piece into our fingers and making it sound like music will inspire us to try to develop as much technique as we can to meet the piece's demands.

When I teach intermediate and advanced students, I typically go the classic route and order of exercises, scales, etudes and pieces. Depending on ad hoc needs I sometimes make exceptions. When a new, non-beginner comes to me I will put them often on a purely technical diet - not only of materials but with a lot of remedial work on good form and positioning, etc. But this will rarely exceed several lessons before I add a piece of repertoire to the diet. A year?? I've never heard of such a thing! Even with beginners, as soon as is feasible we will get to duets where they basically play open strings while I play a tune and together it sounds nice.

September 27, 2016 at 03:33 PM · I had a roommate (violist) at Tanglewood whose teacher gave him nothing but C-Major scales for the first few weeks. He had a very strict, USSR-trained teacher who really wanted to clean up his ear and get rid of some nasty habits that I never got too clear on. A strange time, I would guess. C-Major for lessons, Webern movements for string quartet in coaching, and whatever the orchestra was doing.

Anyway, even that was only for a few weeks.

September 27, 2016 at 03:45 PM · Did you see (hear) any improvement in them? Was it effective?

September 27, 2016 at 03:58 PM · I believe Heifetz really liked to hear scales more than anything else. He apparently said he could tell if a player was good just from hearing a load of scales.

Also, when he heard Perlman as a student with Galamian he really only wanted to hear him play scales (which Perlman was brilliant at).

However, I'm not sure how true any of this is, but it's what I've heard.

He also told Ricci as a child that the concerto he played to him was something he should have been able to sight read! (I forget which concerto it was, I don't think one of the big ones, but I think it's either in Ricci's book, or a quote from him).

But a year of JUST scales is bordering on the ridiculous and is a good way to lose a pupil.

September 27, 2016 at 05:55 PM · Scales are a leg of the foundation but there are other legs. Double-stops from Dont to Bach sonatas seem to me to be just as important to building left hand frame, flexibility and strength.

And keep in mind Ruggiero Ricci's insistence that the single most important thing to practice is scales in thirds (played with a variety of fingerings). Ricci emphasized that it's not just your fingers you're training, it's your ear.

September 27, 2016 at 06:07 PM · I recall hearing that Ray Chen never practiced daily scales until his teacher made him spend an extended period of time (I think it was 6 months?) doing only scale work. I'm guessing it works in specific cases like his, where he was clearly exceptionally talented and perhaps lacked discipline. I agree that speaking generally, doing only scales for a year seems like a bad idea, though.

September 27, 2016 at 06:37 PM · Without commenting on whether one should or shouldn't play scales exclusively, I will say that whenever something I'm practicing seems inadequately interesting, it's usually because I'm not paying adequate attention. When I approach practice as a meditation, trying to be profoundly aware without letting my thought process dominate the moment, everything's fascinating.

September 27, 2016 at 07:01 PM · A year of nothing but Kreutzer and scales would be a better idea for a technical boot camp, but even then throwing in some short Kreisler works, even if that's not the focus, would probably be even better, even if you never get past the first line on any of them.

Did you ask why no Kreutzer?

September 27, 2016 at 08:29 PM · My high school teacher used to tell horror stories about his self-imposed "summer of scales," but it was never clear if they were factual or apocryphal. Probably somewhere in between!

I personally have not found hammering away at the same thing over and over to be the best way to overcome a plateau. I have to either apply the challenge in a new context or go away and work on a different kind of challenge and return later to see improvement. (Within reason, of course; I believe in the power of repetition, but only to a point.) YMMV.

September 28, 2016 at 01:26 AM · Ricci was right about scales in thirds. Working on that has improved nearly every aspect of my playing. Kind of magical.

September 28, 2016 at 05:10 AM · Scales are a great medium through which to address several, probably all, technical aspects of playing the violin...left and right hand technique, sound, contact point, vibrato, evenness of tone, straightness of bow, movement while playing, et cetera et cetera. Something that I heard a teacher say last week that really inspired me was that we should practice scales like we're playing the most Romantic piece of music there is, and that we should strive for that sound, range of colors, and feeling that we desire while playing Romantic concertos and sonatas, even though we're just playing a scale.

With all of that said, even though scales have and always will be part of my essential practice routine, I practice technique (scales, arpeggios, etudes) for a max of an hour and a half a day, only a portion of my total daily practice time (I try to use the 4-5 hour Dorothy DeLay practice model). Even though scales/arps are not the only thing I'm working on, I feel that this technical work every day brings about an awareness of technical issues that I can think about while I'm practicing my other repertoire. The consistency and quality, more than the amount, is what counts for technical practice (or really all kinds of practice, actually). So I would step up the technical practice of scales, etudes of your choice, etc., but only to a reasonable degree that feels good to you, and the key is to really focus when you're practicing them. And make it fun! Make up different rhythms, bowings, bow strokes, fingerings, whatever keeps you interested and also allows you to work on different skills at the same time as the basic scale pattern. I hope this helps!

September 28, 2016 at 05:38 AM · Interestingly my teacher was a student of Ricci

September 28, 2016 at 07:15 AM · Ricci liked single malt whiskey ...

September 28, 2016 at 01:35 PM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIQCg1n49EU

September 28, 2016 at 05:43 PM · Very revealing! Thanks.

September 29, 2016 at 10:06 PM · I can often make the same mistakes regardless of the kind of music but I prefer scales I have memorized. Less pressure.

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