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Why I practice scales and what they do for me

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Published: January 7, 2014 at 7:21 PM [UTC]

I’ve read several posts recently that either downplay the importance of scale practice or suggest that scales should be dispensed with altogether. To that, I say to each his own, but I’d like to share how I practice scales and what I get out of them.

1. I start with two slurred whole notes at 60 bpm. I listen to the note, think about the next note and the third above that. I work on tone, specifically, maintaining a good ringing tone all the way through the eight beats. I also focus on controlling the speed at the bow changes and not accenting bow changes.
2. Then I go to one whole note at 60 bpm. I practice subdividing long beats in my head in addition to the above as well as shifting.
3. Two half notes slurred at 60, paying special attention to the left hand. I make sure the 1st finger is down while I’m playing the 4th finger on the other string (etc.) and I try to get the string crossings as smooth as possible.
4. Three notes slurred at 60, which-I’ll be honest-is mostly me concentrating on subdividing the beats unevenly. Also, I make sure the bow is divided correctly and there is no acceleration toward the bow changes.
5. Four notes slurred at 60, and I work on developing a good legato- No bow accents when I change notes. At this speed, I start adding crescendo to the top of the scale and decrescendo to the bottom, which I do for the rest of the scale series.
6. Six notes slurred at 60, working on good bow division and consistent tone throughout the bow stroke.
7. Eight slurred notes, same as above. I choose a note in the series of eight and accent it. Then I do this one a second time, but as slurred staccato.
8. Here, I switch between eight slurred notes, then six slurred notes, then eight, six, until the scale is finished.
9. Now, twelve to a bow, then 16 to a bow, then 24 to a bow at 60. I also do slurred staccato, spiccato, sautille, and detache bowings at the appropriate speed for the stroke.
10. Then I go through this whole routine with the arpeggios.

I don’t change the key every day, but I do major one day, minor the next for a week, then I change to a different key the next week.

It takes about 30-45 minutes to go through all that, but here’s what I have worked on at the end of that half hour:
Controlling bow speed, pressure, sounding point
String crossings
Bow division
Bow changes
Subdividing beats
Finger dexterity
Controlling accents
Moving left hand fingers evenly
Left hand right hand coordination at high speeds

If I had to do all these things as individual technical exercises, I’d be working for hours. I don't do etudes at all; I go from the scales straight to repertoire, but since I've really committed to the scale routine a few years ago, I learn the material very quickly. I don't have to waste time smoothing out string crosses in a Beethoven Sonata or learning how to fit in all those notes in that caprice- it's all there whenever I need it.

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