Galamian scales work wonders, and here's why

March 22, 2010, 12:43 PM ·

“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.


March 22, 2010 at 09:06 PM ·

thank you for this Laurie, I have the Galamian book, and at first glance, its looks scary . Thank's for shedding light on this ones.

More power to you!

March 22, 2010 at 10:11 PM ·

You just described my daily warm-up routine :)

March 22, 2010 at 10:19 PM ·

Thank you Laurie for this posting.

Though I have never worked with the Galamian Scale Book, I know others who have and I have heard it is a wonderful pedagogical tool.

I can say that I am a disciple of scales. I initially discontinued my violin studies in my third year of college and didn't take any lessons for a dozen years after that before I decided to pursue music seriously as part of a career change. In the dozen years in the wilderness, I continued to do some playing on the side, mostly chamber music,  trying to do at least some practicing on most days. I have to say on many of those days, it was no more than 15 to 30 minutes and I usually didn't do any more than play a few scales. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that for me, scales were the best investment of a limited amount of practice time and kept my left hand very accurate when I was "in the wilderness". When, after a dozen years, I started  back into serious studies again, I realized that my left hand didn't need any serious remedial work as my right hand did.

So strong is my belief in scales that I authored my own extension to the scale book pedagogy. Called "ACCIDENTALS HAPPEN!", it is a scale book designed to expand one's exposure to a wide variety of classical and "alternative" styles of music as well as improvisation. While it has the traditional major & minor scales that most players have come to know, it also includes scales from jazz, ethnic and world music.

For those of you interested in learning more about this book and expanding your musical horizons through work with scales, you can find "ACCIDENTALS HAPPEN!" at my website. Here's the link:

And whatever scale book you choose, you will derive lasting benefit from scales through a lifetime of playing.

March 22, 2010 at 11:12 PM ·


couldn`t agree more.

One thing that often surprises me although I do sympathize,  is people saying they find the Galamian scales intimidating.   The basic scale itself is no different from any other scale manual.  The difference lies in the application of accents,  rythms and bowings.  I suppose students trying to get a handle on things without clear teacher guidance may be trying to do too much or combine too many things too soon.  I think it is crucial to begin this kind of work with the attitude `probbaly until the day I die, so no real hurry. `   Unless of course one has a terminal disease in which case there are more fun things to do anyway....

Oddly enough (aside form the classic accelartion exericse)  I think the best exercise in the book is actually the simplest looking And it just happens to be on page 1.   but what makes it interesting to me is that when you think about it, it is also a little different to the rest of the scales and the approach advocated.  In the latter case one takes a key and creates puzzles using the thre ebasic factors : bowings,  accents and rythms.  In this two octave scale exercise there is actually four dimensions.  The fourth can be approached in two ways.  One can either use exactly the same spacing between all the fingers and simply move the hand up (not so useful) or one has to change the relationship between the fingers to conform to the specific key one has chosen.  For this reason the two octave exercise page is ina way even more mentall intense and potentially rewarding than the traditional work in the rest of the book. The beauty of it is though, that it is not too intimidating to a beginner.  Personally I wouldn`t worry too much about adding the thre efactors on this one at leats for a while.  Get the differnet keys down as a kind of mental warming up and then get into the mental ecstacy of the acceleration version etc.  One can of course play all three octave scales in one key.......That was a favorite of Jamie Laredo if I recall correctly.

I am always amazed when this first exercise is assumed by even quite advanced players to be preparatory to the later scales and therfore largely ignored. It cheered me up no end to read a Clayton Haslop blog a few years back in which he talked about how he warmed up using these two ocatve scales.



March 22, 2010 at 11:29 PM ·

I like them too!  I practice them too!  (Smile)

Laurie, I might have already blathered on about this, and please forgive me if I have, but my first lesson with Mr. K was the G scale.  Even though my first teacher was also a Galamian student, and I had been practicing the scale system for years, Mr. K wanted to hear me cycle through all the patterns and accelerations to make sure I knew how to do it.  Good times...

March 22, 2010 at 11:39 PM ·

Well written...thank you :)  Galamian's scale book and I are long time friends...I would highly recommend to anyone!

March 23, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

 Laurie and Stephen- This was my point when we were commenting on the Repin masterclass suggestion. Besides the  excell scales; arps, double stops and bowing changes can certainly lead to 2 hours of "scale" practice. And, this becomes what fundamentally whole body coordination and ear training. What your colleague said is right!

Also, I can say with great confidence, today's leading soloists at least play some sort of scale routine to warm up with!

Great posts by-the-by!


March 23, 2010 at 12:09 AM ·

Laurie, thanks so much.  Your blog was very helpful, clear, and inviting.  I have never used the Galamian book because I was intimidated, but I'll try it now since you've explained the philosophy of it.  I practice a bunch of scales with variations in bowing, rhythm, and patterns (for example thirds).  I've written them out for my students.  I got the variations partly from other sources and partly from myself.  (Surprisingly, a very good source is Mel Bay's Fiddling Handbook.  It's too complex for beginners.)  I agree that playing scales is a great way to learn and practice bowing and other techniques.  I use it with my students frequently.  It's about time for me to start doing it myself.  Thanks for pushing me over the hump of intimidation.

March 23, 2010 at 02:39 AM ·

"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".

  I vow allegiance to the scales presented by Jean-Delphin Alard for similar reasons


March 23, 2010 at 11:10 AM ·

My allegiance is to Edouard Nadaud for his wonderful scale book which two of my previous teachers told me was better, they thought, than any other including Galamian or Flesch.

March 23, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

Ah, this blog brought back memories of a year ago with my teacher at Luther.  It was last year that I was first introduced to the Galamian scales and I actually have to say that I enjoyed them.  My current teacher grew up on the Flesch and teaches that scale method to me now.  It's a real shame that I've really only been doing scales for 2 years total because I find them enjoyable (yes, enjoyable) and they have helped my intonation immensely since I started them.  I can only imagine what my playing would be like if I would have done more scale work early on.  

March 23, 2010 at 06:50 PM ·

 I like scales and the challenge of string crossings and shifts, esp in the different bowings.  You can hear everything in a precise mathematical way and work on it throughout your life.  For the acceleration exercises... I've seen people (myself included) trying to get something up to tempo, without really going back and solving the fundamentals (shifts/string crossings) and wind up frustrated that way.  When I was first shown the accel... that teacher hadn't actually explained how to do either of these things, ha!  I guess to me the acceleration is a test of whether things are in working order.  The only way in which scales are not applicable is some of the fingerings... when it comes to repertoire it can all change.  With intonation.... I wouldn't say scales are enough.  It can be maddening to get a piece precisely in tune, esp with everything else to work on.

March 24, 2010 at 06:50 PM ·

Great blog and thanks for the tips, Laurie!

March 25, 2010 at 02:13 PM ·

 Galamian's book of scales etc. is a work of pure genius. I use it to correct any technical shortcoming, including intonation. If I am uncertain about a passage in a work I'm practicing I take a break of a few minutes (to clear my memory) then starting with the first exercise I take them in order, until my hearing is exhausted. Then I resume practice without delay. Sounds arduous (it is) but I think of it as aerobic exercise for the ear.

March 26, 2010 at 01:22 PM ·

OK! OK!  I'll crack the spine on my Galamian book this weekend, I promise!

I've been doing Flesch but I bought the Galamian a while ago.... just haven't looked at it yet. My teacher also mentioned it at my last lesson so I guess it's definitely time.

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