V.com weekend vote: How often do you play scales?

July 21, 2012, 1:36 PM · After a two-week vacation to London and Paris, I'm on a major diet.

No, I'm not dieting because of all the brie and baguettes. I'm on a practice diet, heavy on scales.

Ah scales, they are wonderful and they are magical. I turn to them when I need to warm up, when I need to get in shape, when I need to work something out.

When my students ask me, "Why do I need to play scales"? I tend to give strange and nonsensical answers, like, "It's so you can still play when you are 80," or "So you'll never be injured," or "So you'll play in tune, in every position," or "So we can use them to work out certain bowing challenges."

All of those things are true, but no student who is new to scales understands or believes it. In order to believe in scales, I firmly believe that you need to do them every day for a good long period of time. After several years, you'll understand that it's the scales that made your hand so strong, that set your fingers aright in every single position, that gave you a consistent bow arm, that improved your counting, that made all playing easier for you.

A potential student called me recently; it was an adult student. He said he just wasn't progressing with his current teacher and wanted me to be his teacher.

"Are you willing to do scales?" I said.

"Weeeeeell," he said, in an avoiding kind of way, "I really prefer to work things out using pieces…"

Well, sure, I love pieces, too. But forget it, find someone else. Really, truly. You want to play well, but you don't want to do what it takes to play well. I can't help you if you are unwilling to help yourself.

So today I'd like to ask again about your scale habits; and you can answer honestly, as this is anonymous. I won't come to your door with the scale police! And maybe you disagree with me; if so, you are welcome to say why. ;)


July 21, 2012 at 07:25 PM · I have been practicing scales for as long as I've been learning. I knew that I was just whizzing through them mindlessly but didn't quite know what I was supposed to do to focus on them properly. This was because on the outset, they 'seemed' very simple. But recently I got Simon Fischer's 'scales' book. It took me a good while before I began to understand everything he meant, but now I see scales completely differently. Proper intonation, finger preparation, intimate knowledge of note positions and patterns, are things I had no previous idea of. So, while still not actually in love with scales, I have a whole new approach and appreciation of them. And I think, that unless these things are demonstrated to the young student, you can't really expect them to know what they are supposed to be doing. And therefore avoid them because of their boring nature.

July 21, 2012 at 08:31 PM · I've only recently become a scale-er on a regular basis. Every day I do one major/minor/arpeggio set so that every few weeks I'm through the lot. I admit I do some keys more often than others, but that's the only concession I make. I don't *like* them, but I like what they do.

July 21, 2012 at 09:39 PM · I play scales every time I practice because most pieces i play include scales :D Sometimes I also play scales for the sake of scales. Scales are great... in the right dose!

July 21, 2012 at 10:08 PM · Sort of scales - I use a Matson finger pattern study (1-3rd positions) in all the key signatures with bowing variations. Pick a key signature and then go through it in 1st, 2nd & 3rd positions.

It covers the bulk of what I play regularly as a violist.

July 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM · I grew up on a healthy diet of Sevcik and A. Grigoryan scales. While they are good, I really improve my scales playing after practising Simon Fischer's scale book. I started the book right from the beginning and worked my way up. Right now, I'm 3/4 through the book and I've seen a marked improvement in my scale playing.

July 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM · I answered every day because that was the closest to right answer for me. I can't say that I never go one practice session without doing scales, but I never practice them only once a week...

July 23, 2012 at 01:38 AM · Has no one heard of the Carl Flesch Scalesystem? I was introduced to it at the tender age of nine, and use it to this day many, many years later. Sorry, never heard of A. Grigoryan, but in view of the comments I would certainly like to see his scale book.

July 23, 2012 at 06:25 AM · Another scale convert - dragged into them kicking and screaming - and now I can't imagine playing anything without a 3 octave (and even 4) scale startup.

I think the difference for me was when I stopped 'playing' the violin and started 'listening' (something I'm still developing). Once you do that there is an immense pleasure in tracing the scale sequence and hearing the purity of each note and its relation to its neighbours.

BTW the tendency for me was to try to play them as fast as possible - but its actually more difficult to play them as slowly as possible - that takes real ballance and control...

July 23, 2012 at 10:51 AM · I can't imagine practicing without scales and the Carl Flesch series of arpeggios, both of which I play in every key, major and both minors. I started doing this regularly after going through Ivan Galamian's scale initiation at Meadowmount and have been doing it ever since. Especially now, at my advanced age (75) and with a disability (tremor), it has become even more important, since I have to work through my tremor (in both hands) and strengthen my fingers so that all the minute stretches involved in these scales and arpeggios are renewed. It feels like climbing the slippery pole time after time, but I'm determined to preserve what I've spent a lifetime developing.

July 23, 2012 at 01:41 PM · My first instructor told me that no one is so good - they no longer have to do scales. (And he was a former Concertmaster). I had no choice in the matter. If I wanted him as my instructor, I'd be doing scales. Lots of scales. So its been scales for me ever since.

---Ann Marie

July 24, 2012 at 10:33 AM · AH! My very first violin teacher NEVER EVER asked me to play a scale or taught me ONE scale!

He only ever did pieces with me!

Needless to say, after 2 years of learning with him and being a total disaster in intonation and shifting I learnt that 'real technique' existed and so did scales and etudes I 'left him' and went onto another teacher who was totally the opposite: every day practice half 'technique' half 'music' and he loaded me with scales/arpeggios/diminished and dominants/etc etc sevcik/kreutzer and on....fast forward 3 years later and I have improved beyond recognition :)

I love my scales, would not dream of playing them each time I pick up the violin :)

July 25, 2012 at 02:07 PM · I've been playing violin "leisurely" for about 5 years and have practically never done scales because I told my teacher I didn't want to go for exams, just to learn to play music. Is there a reason why my teacher hasn't assigned scales? What am I missing out?

July 25, 2012 at 08:29 PM · Priscilla: depends. Best way to find out is to a) record yourself and b) play an arpegio through 3 octaves.

a) will tell you if you play in tune - if not scales are the way to fix it. You have to play the notes slowly and check that each one is in tune. The ideal way is by checking with open strings (but between you and me using an electronic tuner can work too - but don't tell anyone I said so cause they will make me eat my new Baker's rosin - the key is to use it with the intent of weaning yourself - so you look less and less often ;).

If you have not played scales the odds are you will have no idea how to do an arpegio. What one of those is basically is a simple set of notes that are related - the simplest is the triad of a chord (D, F#,A). They sound great together and you can easily memorize their interrelation. If you can find the D anywhere on your violin you should be able to play those three notes - what that does (IMO) is to introduce you to the keyboard beyond the mechanical aspects of positions - you start to 'know' where the notes are and when you play a piece those notes fall easily under the fingers.

in your case you are getting exactly what you asked for from your teacher - a gentle introduction to an instrument to allow you to play a tune. It wil probably never become second nature as it is for not only virtuosos but also the average orchestra violinist. For that you need to do, wait for it, scales.....

Just keep them simple at first and learn how to listen to your instrument making sounds.

Ooops too long...

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