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Terez Mertes

The circle is complete

September 29, 2009 at 5:21 PM

Adult beginners often have an eclectic learning trajectory, given time constraints and personal musical goals. Having chosen the humble, slower “it’s all about the journey” route for myself, it is only now, four years into my practice, that I find myself encountering the nether reaches of the key signatures. For a long time the keys of G major, D, C and F major defined my core scale practice. I’d tack on each new “sharps” key signature at the start of my scales, keeping the new “flats” keys for the end. Working in this small but ever-expanding perimeter, I didn’t even know the names of all the key signatures, much less their relation to each other. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered just recently that F# major and Gb major used the same notes. It’s only the fingerings that are different, and of course the way they are mentally approached. This discovery floored me. It also made me realize something: I’d completed the circle. I’d crossed a finish line of sorts.

How satisfying it was to run through my scales and études the next day and once again complete this circle of fifths. There was something mystical about it, like some ancient Celtic circle traversed, some Stonehenge of the classical music realm observed. The kind of thing that hints at a profundity beyond your mental grasp, but at the same time, you understand that this is significant.

There are less metaphysical ways, of course, to analyze this paradigm shift. Starting my circle at F# major, sharps and digit hazards everywhere, I welcome the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings as they return to me, one by one. C major in its nude, centrist state, is infinitely more significant than it was in my first year, struggling as I did with stretching my first to fourth finger span on the E string, wedging the first and second fingers close on the A string. And how interesting to note now, the almost sensuous pleasure I find later in tacking on one flat after another. Is it because I know I’m approaching the end of my scales and etudes, and soon the “real” playing will commence? Or because I get to use a low fourth finger? Or because, once again, something mysterious about the keys, their progression, pleases my sensibilities?

Of course, with the circle complete, enlightenment attained, the more mundane questions appear. (As Buddhist teacher/author Jack Kornfield put it so well, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”) Now I find myself wondering if there’s a “right” place to start the circle. I myself start in F# major and end in Gb because these were the last key signatures learned. But illustrations always show C major at the helm and I now wonder, do others commence there, in a circular fashion, adding sharps—but then what? A shift to all the flats of either Gb or Db? Ack! Or do they halt after Gb and begin again at C, heading counter-clockwise? Which isn’t a circle at all, but dual half-wings. And saying “I’m off to practice my dual half-wings of fifths” just doesn’t roll off the tongue so well.

And how does the student with only forty-five minutes of practice time nightly, squeeze in a full set of scales and études, anyway? I go to my lesson with minimal progress made on my assigned pieces and I tell my teacher, honest, I haven’t been slacking. And let’s not even get into incorporating the minor scales into my daily practice, because, well… ((looks around furtively)) I just can’t find the time. Is this an uh-oh waiting to happen?

The circle, alas, is starting to resemble a hamster wheel. Good thing it’s all about the journey.


© 2009 Terez Rose


From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 1:50 AM

You could write the names of the scales on tiny pieces of paper, toss them all in a bowl, and pull out four a day to practice.  This way, you could cover all 24 scales in six days.  There would also be additional time to practice PIECES!

The randomness might not appeal to your OCCOFVD (Obsessive Compulsive Circle Of Fifths Violin Disorder), but you could still take care of business, in less time. (Insert smiley face here).


From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 2:12 AM

P.S.  F# and Gb are not the same note.  Sorry...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 3:01 AM

 >P.S.  F# and Gare not the same note.

My chromatic tuner says they are. And we all know that the chromatic toner has the final say. ((Insert one of Anne's smiley faces here.))

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 7:21 AM

I suggest a change in time management.  You don't have to (and can't) practice everything every day.  Allot a certain amount of time, perhaps, 15 minutes a day, to practicing scales.  Don't try to do them all every day.  I like Anne's suggestion on how to apportion them in your schedule.  Then you can focus more on the pieces you're studying and learn more from and about them.  I think this will perk up your spirits because you will learn more about how to change notes into music.  Start with that spark of curiosity and follow it.  You will advance musically and stop feeling like a hamster on a wheel.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 10:54 AM

What scales and etudes do you do? 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 1:03 PM

Terez - I usually concentrate on two sets of scales each day, doing the major and minor with the same key signature for each of these two.  I could be doing just regular scales, but much of the time I am doing double stop scales.  Then I work on an etude.  All that can be accomplished in about 10 minutes.  In addition, I think there is virtue in working on particular scales for days in a row to really get them down.   I do the same scales and etude during the entire time between each lesson, only changing after the lesson (which happens every few weeks). 

While the circle of fifths is a somewhat mesmerizing construct for musicians, I would not necessarily use it or worry about it to structure practicing.

From PM Rolf
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 2:44 PM

I think going thru all the scales in my daily practice will absolutely drive me nuts.  I'm lazy and I don't really like scales but I force myself to do it.  I also don't have a long 45 minutes stretch of time (more so that I dont have such attention span), I break down my practice into tiny 15 minutes session, but I force myself to do a scale at each small session.  I'm assigned one key signature a week, so I usually just practice that one. I go over major, minor 3 octaves, all the appregios, broken thirds, chromatic, for double stops, I can only do 6ths at this point.  Then I go directly to my etude of the week, I spend no more than 10 minutes a day on these. :P

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 3:57 PM

 Wow, these are amazing replies! I'm glad I asked what other people do, b/c I really had no idea. Then again, it would probably be good for me if someone more on the beginner end of the spectrum contributed for comparison purposes. Karen, to answer your question, I use mostly simple adv beginner scales and exercises from a book by (P.L.?) Bytovetsky and two other practice books whose names elude me at the moment. I rather like doing a brief scale (usually just in first position, as that is what we still focus on) and following it with a brief etude. I also like getting a feel for the whole sheebang, from F# to Gb. Maybe it's the classically trained ballet dancer in me - this careful detailing of the basics every time, a change of emphasis here and there, but still touching on every body part (or notes, in this case). But these replies are definitely giving me something to think about! So, thanks so much, Anne, Pauline, Karen, Tom and PM.

More, please! This is enlightening.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 4:09 PM

 > I like Anne's suggestion on how to apportion them in your schedule. 

And, whoops, now I feel sheepish. I'd thought Anne was joking here! : /

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 7:01 PM

Terez -

I am starting my 4th year like you.  I really enjoyed the mystical way you described scales because for the longest time, that's how I felt about them myself. 

I am still not able to look at a scale and tell what signature it's in.  For me, playing the scales in 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th position is driving me nuts!  Dropping my 4th finger down to hit some of those notes is really tough.  I have to divide up what scales I practice like someone said earlier or I wouldn't be playing any etudes or pieces at all.

---Ann Marie

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 8:30 PM

I was (sort of) joking about the OCCOFVD, not the four-a-day plan.  If the randomness doesn't float your boat, you could try this six day plan:

  1. C Major, A Minor, F Major, D Minor
  2. B-Flat Major, G Minor, E-Flat Major, C Minor
  3. A-Flat Major, F Minor, D-Flat Major, B-Flat Minor
  4. G-Flat Major, E-Flat Minor, B Major, G# Minor
  5. E Major, C# Minor, A Major, F# Minor
  6. D Major, B Minor, G Major, E Minor

Or, something like that...

I won't insert a smiley face here, just so you know I am very, very, very, very very, very serious. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 8:40 PM

 >I won't insert a smiley face here, just so you know I am very, very, very, very very, very serious.

LOL! And thanks for the very serious tips.

Ann Marie - that's great that you remember getting the same feeling! (Never mind that we started around the same time and you're way past me... Reminding myself that I'm taking the slower "it's all about the journey" route. The scenic route - uh, that's it.)

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 8:50 PM

I Like Hrimaly!  I think Heifetz did too?

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2009 at 10:18 PM

 >I Like Hrimaly!

Okay, Royce. Explanation required. 

From Royce Faina
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 12:24 AM

Deer Season starts tomorrow morning.  I'll explain when I'm back.  ;)

Take a look at Hrimaly's book.  It's cool!

From David Allen
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 12:23 AM

Hi Terez,

My teacher says to keep a master list of all the tunes I've learned, in chronological order, and play a few every day. That way you eventually cycle through them all without it being a burden to your practice schedule. You can apply the same thinking to the scales (and don't forget the appegios). What I like to do is modify this system to place foremost the scales and arppegios of the keys of whatever tunes on which I'm currently working. That way, if Im particulary strapped for time one day, I at least get the most important stuff done first, and the rest isn't forgotten.

Great topic!

From David Allen
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 12:34 AM

P.S. Don't forget the relative minor scales.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 1:12 AM

Scales are great.  Every major scale has the SAME exact pattern so you always have this constant going for you:  starting from the tonic (first note) the pattern goes Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half. 

If you really want to jumpstart your practice, do sets of arpeggios too.  If I only had time to practice one thing it would be arpeggios, personally. 

As for etudes, I'm partial to Mazas, Kreutzer, Rode,Gavinies, Fiorillo and Dont., thanks to my Galamian lineage. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 3:29 AM

 Ooh, thanks, David and Bonny for your comments! Yes, I find arpeggios to be quite important, and weirdly easy to forget if I don't focus on what I'm doing. And I like these "alternating scales" ideas people are proposing, in that it will allow me to add the minor scales to my weekly practice in a way that's currently lacking.

And David, I like the idea of a master list of short pieces to cull from. I just recently made myself a little binder with my fiddle tunes in them, which are a great thing to pull out from time to time - they're almost like little etudes in one key or another, for me. But after a few months, they tend to fade from my mind, which seems like a waste of a learned fiddle tune. Hopefully this new set-up will work in my favor.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 3:36 AM

 >Every major scale has the SAME exact pattern so you always have this constant going for you:  starting from the tonic (first note) the pattern goes Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half. 

I've never thought of it this way before. How cool, how uncomplicated!

From PM Rolf
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 4:12 AM

Terez, I'm only in my year and 8 months mark, so I'm much more junior, so my approach is probably more baby. 

I don't know if you doing bowing variations on your scales, but I do my scales in 2 broad ways. One is to really listen to intonation, that's when I do one bow per note slowly and listen.  The other one is my most dreadful one, that is slurring 3, 6, 9 or sluring one octave holding the tonic note a bit longer.  I'm still a baby beginner, so shifting down in the middle of a slur on 8th position is not something I like to do on a daily basis. I use the book called Barbara Barber's Scale for Advanced Violinists.  When I learn piano, i would do Major scale and it's relative minor.  But I do the opposite with violin, e.g. this week Im doing D major, as well as D minor.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 3:42 PM

 >I'm only in my year and 8 months mark, so I'm much more junior, so my approach is probably more baby. 

Oh, PM, you're so funny - your "baby steps" shot ahead of my efforts in a matter of weeks! I'm probably right now where you were in your third month (when you joined your first community chamber orchestra!). You are not allowed to call yourself a beginner anymore. : )

But thanks for sharing your bowing practice. Up to now, I've done 1 long stroke, 2 short, per note, and/or one bow per note, on every key signature. I've recently incorporated slurring 6-8 notes of the scale to get things moving faster, particularly on the keys I've been playing in for years.

In the end, I suppose, our practice is a product of what our teacher has been teaching. I've brought up some of the etude books mentioned here to my teacher, and it seems she prefers other books -- or maybe it's that those books work in the higher positions, and we've spent a HUGE amount of time in 1st position, which I finally fretted about. (Her philosophy is for the student to get down all the key signatures before moving onto higher positions.)  Although for the fiddle tunes that I've been learning in tandem, I imagine 1st position is the most fruitful.

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 4:49 PM

You guys have me thinking there a scale book out there that is good?  It would be neat to have a nice practice book.

---Ann Marie

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2009 at 7:05 PM

 Ann Marie - here's a link to the book I use and like. It's all scales, all the time, but I'm enjoying it, and my teacher regularly assigns it to her students. It's P.L. Bytovetski, "Scale Technic for the Violin."

From PM Rolf
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 11:16 AM

Hahahhah Terez, thanks for the encouragement, but I still don't like scales!  What etude books are you using?  My teacher is the same way, she has her mind set on what she's using.  She uses a book call Larouex , i can't even spell it and I'm traveling and Kayser.  I don't understand why i work on two etudes a week, it's a bit too much.  :P

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 6:06 PM

 >What etude books are you using? 

I don't have one yet - I've got 4 general lesson/duet books (I know, that's a lot, and that's another reason my progress is at a snail's pace, but I don't mind) that have etude exercises. But I'm taking notes on what etude books people here mention using. A purchase to make once I'm playing in the higher positions...

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