The subject of scales has always been very divisive. Do you love them or hate them? Are they something you genuinely enjoy or are they a necessary means to an end?
Personally I love scales. I love the structure and I find them calming, almost zen-like to play. I find it fascinating that each key, although following the same pattern, has a completely different aura. When I was studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music in the eighties, there were only a handful of practise rooms available to students so you had to be creative in finding places to practise. Behind the percussion room there was a disused loo that a handful of people knew about and I used to love going there to practise my scales, sometimes for a few hours at a time; also, the acoustics in there were fantastic, which is always a bonus.
As a teacher, scales can be a thorny subject. Younger students often find it hard to understand why they should play and practise scales, whereas adults can sometimes be more amenable to the discipline and patience required for scales practise, although this is a broad generalisation as there are exceptions on both sides. For beginners in particular I like to create scale exercises that make them more fun, helping them to see and hear patterns which they will then encounter in the pieces they play.
Practising scales can be useful from so many perspectives; initially, left hand intonation is the most glaringly obvious, but it very quickly extends to working on the right arm as well, using scales to help with a variety of bowing techniques. They can also be useful in teaching and learning rhythmic patterns as well as working on bow control, dynamics and so much more. The beauty of scales is that they are indispensable in improving your technique whatever your level of preparation.
When I was preparing my students for their “Quinto” exam for the Italian conservatoire system, they had to learn all three-octave scales and arpeggios on the violin with a variety of bowings. A few of them even came to share my love of scales, especially when they realised how much it was helping them.
I had a student years ago called Gabriele. His mother had sent him to study with me saying that his previous teacher had traumatised him so badly that she just wanted him to learn to love music, having no great expectations that he would become a violinist. I have to say mission accomplished, as Gabriele did learn to love music and still does to this day; scales however, not so much. Every time I asked him to play B flat major scale, I would remind him that there is no open E string and he would nod and agree with me and then play an open E string and stop in his tracks.
One day, we went through this particular ritual and, as he played the inevitable open E string, my cat Chocky leaped forward and bit him on the leg. I was shocked as she was a very placid cat but Gabriele, completely unperturbed, turned to me and smiled saying, "your cat is a music critic." What a wonderful response, and I believe after that day he did remember the E flat more often than not.
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