When I was young I hated learning my scales. I took grade exams and it was the part that I least looked forward to. I can remember my teacher saying ‘your scales are the most important part of playing’. I disagreed! I could practice the pieces all day. It was easier, there was a melody to follow, an accompaniment that put it in perspective and a sense of depth and excitement that drew you in as a young musician. Scales always seemed to be the ‘punishment’ for enjoying the pieces!
I started learning with Selma Gokcen at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and she opened my eyes to new ways of practicing scales. Suddenly I was hooked. Everywhere I looked I saw scales; Bach, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky. I got obsessed to the point that fellow students would often ask if I ever practice pieces!
When I graduated I started teaching. No matter how much enthusiasm I put in to my lessons, I still drew a blank as how to inspire young pupils to engage with scales. When you’re 18, you are mature enough to see the parallels between different elements of your practice and the repertoire. However, the 8 year olds I was teaching weren’t playing Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. I found myself remembering when I was their age and thinking, what a shame we have to go through this!
I spoke to Selma, one of the most creative and dedicated teachers on the planet, and she said she had the same problem. I knew if she felt this, then I was in good company! We set about finding a solution. The books with backing tracks always seemed to engage pupils to listen whilst they played and most importantly keep a pulse. They also listen to their intonation, so with this in mind, we wrote a few accompaniments for scales. I was shocked at the result. Pupil’s eyes lit up as they played along to the first jazz accompaniment. A pupil said, “But I don’t like jazz, I want to do one in a hip hop style”. I went home and wrote one. Next week I was challenged to write a tango, the next funk. This pattern continued week after week until I was building up a catalogue for each scale, following the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music’s syllabus.
Over 2 years I wrote around 300 accompaniments (I didn’t sleep much coincidently!) for every scale and arpeggio, dominant and diminished 7ths, chromatic scales, etc in a variety of octaves for every string instrument. When I got to the end, I realised that there's not a CD on earth that could take this many tracks. An app was the obvious solution.
I was fortunate enough to reach out to two extremely talented and passionate software developers at the top of their games in their relevant fields, who happened to have a window for a new project. And SmartScales was born - an app for iPad (iPhone coming soon) designed to make learning and teaching scales fun and interactive. The software developers blew my mind with their ability to vary the tempo and pitch, produce a scrolling score and create an app so visually appealing that I would have happily hung it on my wall!
Now when I go to teach, it is hard to get pupils to play their pieces. I urge you to give it a go in your practice or lessons. It’s free to download the try and very modestly priced for purchase thereafter (cheaper than sheet music!). I’ve used it in both individual and group teaching situations. It has also proved to be a great tool to teach improvisation. The huge variety of genres means that pupils can explore scales in any style and experiment rhythmically too.
Not every pupil will be a superstar. There are a million factors internal and external that will get in the way. If we as teachers can make the process of learning scales inspiring and fun, we’ve done our job.Tweet
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