July 11, 2008 at 3:27 PMI've been on vacation for a little while, without my instrument, but while I was gone I was thinking about scales.
Before I left there was a blog in which someone posted how he practiced scales, "one hour to warm up," went through an extensive range of keys and bow patterns, and I asked him in a comment what his goal was with that plan. I said I would find trying to follow such a plan confusing and boring. And maybe frustrating. I then left town and computer access before I could see the answer, and when I got back and checked, the blog was gone and my question with it.
I had already fretted a bit, as I was climbing the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, that maybe I had come across as obnoxious and ignorant with my question, as another internet crackpot. Sometimes questions like that are perceived as loaded, or really are loaded. And the fact that I used the words confusing, boring, and frustrating was probably not a good sign. I didn't mean that *he* was being any of those things, but that probably wasn't clear either. Anyway, scale guy, whoever you are, sorry, I didn't mean to be critical or snide, even if I sounded that way. It was about me, not about you.
The question, however, is still bugging me, internet crackpot or no. Scales are recommended to pretty much everyone, pretty much all the time, and I assume rightly so. They really must whiten, brighten, and cure the common cold, if you know what you're doing. But sometimes the advice seems rather indiscriminate, or perhaps it assumes some prior knowledge or intent that most people have, that I missed or about which I am particularly dense.
In particular, scale advice that starts with one scale and tells you to do a particular set of exercises, often quite a lengthy one, and then follows with "now do the same thing for all the keys/scales" seems especially daunting and difficult to parse. I can certainly imagine how this would take an hour a day; honestly, attempting anything like that would probably take me several hours, and I'd lose my place before I got beyond G major.
I feel like this is something I need to discuss with my teacher, but I need to get smarter first before I bring it up with her. I own several scale books and there are notes and dates written in them to suggest that I've done them, but I can't say my scale study up to now has been very profitable, or very memorable for that matter.
My teacher in high school had me buy the Hrimaly Scale Studies for Violin. I still have it. Although it is largely lost in the mists of time, I remember him saying something like, one fingering will work for almost all the scales, except for G and A. For all the others, you can start on 2 and use the same fingering, if you learn it well. He may not have actually said this, because it sounds kind of silly to me now, but it's what I remember. Because I also remember my next teacher, in Germany, being horrified by that idea. She thought you needed to learn different fingerings for different scales and told me to buy the Carl Flesch scale system instead. I still have that one too.
My teacher at Caltech was okay with the Flesch and he picked out several exercises from it for me to do, which I did. It looks like I did mostly C,G,D, and A major, based on the dates written in the book. My first viola teacher said I should get Flesch for viola, so I have that too, and I read out of it now when I'm practicing scales on viola.
I tend to do scales in 2-3 different keys every practice session. Three octaves without vibrato just for being able to do the three octaves, for trying to recognize all those ledger lines in alto clef, for intonation, for shifting, for left thumb placement. I've also been trying to "hear the note in my head" before putting the finger down. And to put each finger down straight and clear and correctly the first time without adjustments. Two octaves with vibrato with the scroll against the wall for vibrato. Stop when/if the vibrato gets tight. This takes 10-15 minutes and then I'm ready to move on. Sometimes I do a scale in the key of the piece or etude before the piece or etude rather than lumping all the scales together. This seems like more than enough, especially given my limited practice time which is only about an hour a day, sometimes less.
I'm not sure that this is true, but I think my current teacher may think that I'm more advanced in the scale arena than I actually am. She thinks, for example, that I can play 3-octave scales from memory, and is surprised when I drag out Flesch, pages marked with easy convenient post-it notes--C,G,D,A and so forth, in order to play the one she asked for. When I have played scales for her, she has always had something extremely helpful and interesting to say about it, so I am thinking this is an avenue I should pursue further. I've already asked if I need to get another scale book besides Flesch and she said no this one is fine. But other questions come to mind, like "how many keys does it make sense to do this in?" and "what about all the other bowing and arpeggio exercises in there?" and "how hard should I work on memorizing these scales?"
Since I don't have "an hour to warm up" on scales, and Buri says that's a warm up of death anyway, how can I use the 20 minutes per day that I realistically have to spend on scales most effectively?
What I think I am doing currently is, identifying issues that need work in pieces and orchestra music and then doing scales focused on these issues. So, I need work on loosening up my vibrato--do it in a scale. I need work on hearing notes in my head and putting my fingers down correctly the first time--again, do it in a scale. This seems like a good, if maybe somewhat incomplete, answer to that question.
I hope you had a good vacation. Thinking about scales would not have been my first choice, but one thing about vacations is that you can get some clarity/insight on troublesome issues from the everyday world. Good luck with the scales.
I would suggest an alternative to your current plan. Get the Galamian book, and do only one three-octave scale a week. Maybe spend three weeks on the first scale, because you should memorize each scale. (The first few are the hardest to memorize, but it gets easier as your familiarity increases). Do the acceleration exercise at the beginning of the book, which is to say, set the metronome on 60 and do:
Half notes on every note
Quarter notes, slurring two to a bow
Two to a beat, four to a bow
Three to a beat, six to a bow
Four to a beat, eight to a bow
Six to a beat, 12 to a bow
Eight to a beat, 24 to a bow (that's three beats, the one outlier for the right hand)
This, once learned very well, can be expanded to include just about every kind of bowing and rhythm under the sun. But don't worry about that. First learn the scales, and that means, memorize them.
I think this is a better formula for foundation-building than doing a lot of different keys per session. You will begin to understand, when you play your scales by memory, why people spend a full hour on scales. I don't these days, but I have at certain points in my development. I always warm up with scales, though. It can be rather Zen-like, I find it very relaxing.
The acceleration exercise is particularly good as you get older, for warming up the hands and keeping them in shape and keeping the fingers falling in the right places.
After I wrote this blog, I realized that I have tried to memorize 3-octave scales before, and may have even succeeded between one lesson and the next, but if they were there once, they're gone now. It's kind of discouraging because it's really like starting over again every time I pick it up, sort of like "Groundhog Day" or that movie with Drew Barrymore--20 first dates. Whereas pieces and etudes, for the most part, aren't like that.
I'd say your first goal would be to be able to do it. To play one entire scale, and to fit it into the rhythmic configuration I described (and if you get the Galamian book it's spelled out pretty clearly). Then the next goal would be to memorize it.
When you have it memorized (and before), you can work on perfect intonation and smooth shifts. Also, you can work on playing it with full bows, frog to tip, and flawless tone, no catch in your bow.
One goal of scales is first to learn the geography of the fingerboard, and then as you play them repeatedly from memory, to MASTER the geography of the fingerboard, so your fingers know exactly where to go in any position, in any pattern on the fingerboard. That means mastering every scale (major and minor) in every position, and it takes years. (I won't mention arpeggios...)
Once you have mastered a few scales, you can use them to practice bowings like detache, martele, spiccato, up-bow and down-bow staccato, ricochet, etc. etc. etc.
But I'd start with doing one scale. Learn it, fit it into the rhythm, and memorize it. You can ask your teacher, as well.
In short, the goal is mastery.
This is true (but it is except G and D I think on violin, I only know the viola scales). My teacher has been teaching this method to me and it is quite easy once you get the gist of it. There are basically 2 finger patterns, one for major and the other for melodic minor. Once the pattern is learned, you simply shift up a half note for each scale and keep the same finger pattern.
It is very handy for learning the fingerboard and "hearing" the scales.
Thanks Laurie for your helpful advice! Definitely no more than one key 3 octave scale and arpeggio each day for me. I’d do it for a week or two, or longer until I’m ready to move to a different key.
There are two editions of the Flesch Scale System. The newer one has extra fingerings, and supplemental tortures, by Max Rostal. The older edition is just straight-up Flesch.
If you haven't already, you could bring up the scales subject in your lesson, and have your teacher work out a scales practice plan for you. There are so many great scale books to learn out of (Flesch, Galamian, Sevcik, Hrimaly, Barber, etc.) and it can be a bit confusing about which one is best for you. There is more than one way to build the scaffolding, and your teacher can pick the right one for you!
Also, I personally agree with Laurie that one scale at a time is best. Like Charles Emerson Winchester The 3rd said on "MASH", "Gentlemen, I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on." That is a marvelous philosophy to have. I do much better when I spend time getting a few things much better, as opposed to many things just the same...
Also, I don't think you are an internet crackpot. (Insert smiley face here).
I have found that my beginning students generally don't like to practice unadorned scales. When I give them a harder assignment, scales with rhythm and bowing variants, they're more likely to practice and enjoy them. They respond well to a challenge. The naked scales were just too boring.
I agree with Laurie that scales should be technique trainers. I also agree with Laurie that you should practice only one scale and its variants at a time, and don't move on until you feel very comfortable (maybe not perfect) with your playing of that one scale.
But I still think the best approach was that taught by Lillian Fuchs, a Kneisel pupil:
**Don't use a scale book. Scales should be learned by rote and memorized, not read from the page.
**Use only three fingerings for theree octave scales on the violin (or viola, a fifth down): one for G, one for Ab and A, and the third fingering from Bb up, starting on the second finger, moving up the fingerboard chromatically. This makes much more sense on the violin and viola than following the circle of fifths and is MUCH simpler to learn, clearing the way for using scales to solve other problems. Use the same fingerings for the relative melodic minor.
**Follow this with scales in thirds, sixths, octaves and fingered octaves and tenths, and then arpeggios.
**Practice ONE major key and its relative minor key a day, carefully and thorougly.
I've been following this approach for thirty years and it serves me well.
I think their value is mainly that they sensitize you to everything, distances, good shifting and so on. If I could warm up and nail A, and then one with very different distances, like D, I'd feel good about it.
The geography of the fb though, I got mainly from Schradieck, and from an orchestral excerpts book I had. It was written by somebody in the NY Phil, just some guy in it, I think, and it was pretty interesting. In the forward he gives a little homage to Leonard Bernstein. Would be intersting to know know who wrote it. I think the cover was light yellow paper with dark brown.
It was interesting that Agustin Hadelich (last Indy winner) said somewhere that he didn't do scales, might have said he never did, can't remember.
And I think nothing will improve your left hand like what he's suggesting there. Start with thirds, and if you can't play them at the same time, play the notes sequentially for starters. Play it as double stops as soon as you can though, and listen like hell! :) Buri once suggested scales in thirds going all the way up using 1,3 or 2,4 (not alternating). I think that would be great for developing sensitivity and control/strength.
Playing other instruments helped me to understand this. Most notably, playing didjeridoo opened my mind to the concept. On didj, there's really only one note to work with. I didn't know how to explain this to anyone until I met this guy, a bass player, named Victor Wooten.
Vic is better at teaching this than I, so here's a link to one of the times he gave this lesson:
On the left, select, "Artist Festures."
Then select, "Victor Wooten."
Finally, chose "Ten Elements of Music 1-4"
I know he's not a violinist, but much of what he teaches applies to every instrument.
Now, after U watch these, keep in mind that notes are still important. Knowing chords, scale, and modes are all still important.
But after I learned to focus on the rest of the parts of music, I haven't really needed to practice scales, all that much. My fingers just know where to go.
Someone previously mentioned something about just focusing on a difficult part of the music. I agree with that much more than practicing any scales.
In closing, watch one more of those vids under Vic, the last one, "Victor Wooten 18."
Anyway, Victor emphasises techinque in those videos. He's saying there's more than that, which people here realize. But you're right in that they might not have an understanding of those things. I could see very high level players having that same shortcoming. He doesn't de-emphasise scales at all, he just stresses that there is more than that, something nobody would deny, and makes a stab at presenting some of those things.
The 4th video is so interesting - after going through "the elements of music" he plays two solos, the first with every note a wrong note, and the second with every note a right one. Everyone in the audience perfers the first solo. Then they discuss why - it's the additional elements they've discussed factoring in, overriding the fact that all the notes are wrong. Interesting.
I knew these guys before they were famous. I wasn't surprized B. became a famous banjo player. A decade later, I was surprized the FTs became famous. Then I was surprized V. became _the_ bass authority. But it's a stylistic thing; I acknowledge he's a great player. My favorite electric bass player is a jazz player who played on Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris." Several years ago I found out who he was, found that he was playing regularly at a club in L.A., and almost made a pilgramage out there to hear him :)
Some of my problems stem from having switched to viola. That is, many of these scales seem new because, well, they are new (to me). For repertoire I'm now learning Schumann's Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 and it's in A-flat major. Four flats. I have never played a piece with four flats on the viola before. So I'm playing the A-flat major and F-minor Flesch exercises for the next two weeks, but only in 2 octaves. We started them at my lesson and it seemed like I had enough to do keeping to the lower two octaves and playing those well.
In general she was in agreement with doing one key a week and said that after I did these, we would go back in the book and do it more systematically, including the 3 octaves. I mentioned that a friend had suggested I get the Galamian book (which is really expensive for viola, but I did order it) and she said that was a great book too but she liked the diminished chords and chromatics in the Flesch book that I have now and thought I'd get some things I needed out of reading and parsing those sequences in alto clef.
Buri is right, there is a lot of serendipity on these blogs. I went back and looked at an old blog of Ruth Kuefler's, Three Cheers for Scales, and she suggests some scale exercises very similar to Laurie's. Like the repetition hits, this advice just kind of went over my head the first time I read it, until I came on my own to a place where I needed it.
Unfortunately, like a lot of hyperbole no matter how it's used or about what subject, I guess what he's saying can be misinterpreted. But I don't think he's dissing or insulting anyone, he's just trying to get people's attention and get them thinking about music in a different way than they are used to.
A related thought that keeps coming up for me when I read v.com is that student violinists and violists (including me) do tend to focus too much on the left hand at the expense of the right. That one can use scales to train the right hand and improve one's bow arm wasn't really something that I thought about very much until recently.
Wooten also gets into an area about which I know very little and can't say much about: jazz and improv. The ability to improvise seems to be a major goal of people who want to (or are able to) go through the all the scales in all the keys of the circle of fifths. This recent blog, for example: GC's scale method.
I respect people who can do this very much, but I really can't do it myself, and I think that's where I have to start being realistic about my own goals. I probably *could* learn to do it, to some degree, if I put a lot of time and effort in, but I don't think that would be time well spent, given my specific interests and abilities and the reality of the rest of my life.
For adult students with limited time these kinds of issues loom larger than they do for younger students who intend to be professional musicians and who have hours a day to practice. Maybe that's one reason some teachers find that they don't like to teach adults: they don't want to have to engage in this process of prioritizing and sorting and maybe even setting aside a pursuit that is, in and of itself, extremely worthwhile, even noble.
But I think that prioritizing process is valuable, even necessary, in order to keep some balance in your life.
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