The purpose of scales in practicing

June 8, 2011 at 03:46 AM ·

So as my students grow up of course they need to know their scales.  I usually teach them by pattern and have them figure out notenames/key signature themselves, but usually practice by ear so they can focus on the quality of their playing, tone, technique, all that stuff.  But still, sometimes it feels like mindless repetition.  Once you know the scale and have the finger patterns in your muscles, what is the purpose of practicing it further except as review?  OK, I know there are a lot of purposes!  But for, say an elementary kid, early intermediate level, lesson already too short for me to want to spend a lot of my teaching time on it--how would you direct the practice so that it's more than just quality review?  What can they be teaching themselves in their scale practice?  And how can you get such a student to the point that they can think through this for themselves and take ownership of it, rather than me directing this scale, this variation, etc. etc. every week? 

Replies (41)

June 8, 2011 at 04:05 AM ·


ther eare a number of dimensions to the answer.

1)  Scales give one a sens eof key that is different to the piano.  The student must be made aware from the beginning of how the 3rd and 7th note of the scale,  for example effect the sound of the key.

2)  Galamian said the purpos eof practice is to strengthen the connection betwene mind and fingers though systematic presentation of puzzles.  this is done most effectively though sclaes.  right from the beginning ther eshould be new rythms, bowings and accents introduced.  if te studnets are simply repeating scales in the same way it is boring.  It is also largely a waste of time.

3)   To a large (but not total extent) focus on all aspects of technique without having to worry about the msucial aspect.

4)   To develop a set of conditioned reflexes suvch that one can sight read virtually any piec eof music not only becuase of the pattenrs leanred but the mind finger connection that has been established.

5)   To leanr to listen carefully to intonation.  

6)  Recently Simon Fische rha sbeen pointing out that one can and should learn bowings and such from concertos and pieces so that elarning music is fatse rand easier.

7)  To consistently reinforce the myelin build up of where everything is on the insturment. Music is too hit and miss.

8)  To constantly refine and retain one intonation.

9)  To piss off the cat.

Are we nearly there yet?



June 8, 2011 at 06:42 AM ·

as for getting studnets in to them, it may actually beeasier  in the short run to provide an external rather than inetrnal incentive. IE have a big Crhistma stree or similar in your studio.  Decide what combinations of key , rythm, bowings etc you want and make the completion of these one stage.   The student has a name marker on the tree and as they complete the stage they move up the tree.

Or have fun scale days where you play scale games.  For example throwing big dice to decide on a  specific bowing which the studnet has to do to advance down the room or a colleaguenot holding a violin advances down the room.



June 8, 2011 at 12:44 PM ·

One thing to try (and I think very useful, though perhaps others don't agree) is to challenge the student to find a new way to get from point A (say G string G) to point B (third octave G).  The possibilities - and hence fingering patterns - are endless.

June 8, 2011 at 12:48 PM ·

My scale book, Nadaud's Gammes Pratiques (Bozza ed.) has a whole lot more than just up and down scales.  So do Flesch and most other classic scale books.  Mine has bowing alternatives, and I would bet the others do too.  So, doing scales with a good book covers a lot of territory, most of it much more interesting than just up and down scales. 

June 8, 2011 at 03:23 PM ·

I wholeheartedly concur with Buri on the points he made -- especially on intonation.  Speaking from personal experience (as short as that experience may be!), scale practice really helps to put a fine point on executing good intonation.

This week my teacher asked me to practice my scales using a single bow stroke for each scale.  I've been having a recurring problem with "too much music left at the end of my bow", and I think this exercise will really help.  It's driving me totally nuts (could the fact that I use a 3/4 bow contribute to the problem?), but I can see slight improvement already.  :) 

June 8, 2011 at 03:29 PM ·

Sorry to seem facetious, but there's some philosophical truth here, IMHO :-

From the Bible (Acts 9:18)
American Standard Version
And straightway there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he arose and was baptized;

Scales in his case means those little plates on the skin of fish or insects, but as the musical scales trip ever more fluently from thy fingers, thy musical understanding improveth.

It's reported that when Heifetz was having a bad day at a recording session, he took a break, went into a corner and practised SCALES.

June 8, 2011 at 05:02 PM ·

 I read somewhere that Casals would start off his first practice session of the day with scales, "to remind his fingers where they should go."  A very good idea indeed.  To scales I would also add arpeggios – they are only too often overlooked.

June 8, 2011 at 05:04 PM ·

I agree: the purpose of practicing scales is not only to learn scales (as if that weren't enough), but once they are down cold one can use them to isolate and work on so many other things, like bow control and vibrato and rhythmic patterns.

June 8, 2011 at 06:03 PM ·

Ok, great thoughts all and I agree with all...that helped me get to the point that I think is really what I'm trying to flesh out.  To what extent does the purpose of scales overlap the purpose of etudes?  I did not grow up working on etudes, am trying to incorporate them more into my teaching in a logical structure, finding that a lot of what I am doing with the etudes is doubling the things I was doing with scales (e.g. bowing variations) and working through: what are purposes and balance of both of them, and how can I use both in the most logical way to build my kids?  Without spending the entirety of a 30-minute lesson on scales and etudes?  :)

June 8, 2011 at 07:37 PM ·

Everything we play is made of scales in one way or another. Having a good foundation in scales is to have a good foundation in the technique behind all left-hand technique.

June 8, 2011 at 08:30 PM ·

How do you avoid spending a 30 minute lesson entirely on scales and etudes?

Teach a 60 minute lesson.  (Smiley face here)


June 8, 2011 at 08:57 PM ·

Kathryn you have now touched the holy cow of pedagogy. You will be advised by players who spend their whole lives playing printed notes from a page where all the notes are marked, and the number of sharps and flats are written at the start of each stave. No improvisation is required and the bowing can be practiced by playing useful repertoire. Scales can be scaled down. 

June 8, 2011 at 09:23 PM ·

 Actually scales are important for improvisation too. Most good improvisers have a solid knowledge of their fingerboard and scales combined with some theory knowledge give an improviser the tools to navigate their fingerboard. I'm not an improviser myself but I know some extremely good improvisers who play their scales in every configuration imaginable to be sure that they never feel lost while they're playing.

June 8, 2011 at 09:43 PM ·

Bravo Buri! What great answers.

The possible scale combinations are actually mind-boggling: 24 major and minor scales (actually more minor-scale combos) and probably 24 different interval combinations if you consider the complete range of ethno-music that improvisers might get involved with. Is that well over 500 or 1000 possibilities?

The cultural essence of some of some ethno-music is clear from their scale patterns. I wish I'd know some of that long ago.

I used to do conventional major/minor scale warmups as part of my starting routine - but now I find I need to save my energy for the music I want to play (at least today I do). So many of the troublesome accidental passages that worry incompletely-trained sight readers, are just scales they didn't learn.



June 8, 2011 at 10:45 PM ·


>To what extent does the purpose of scales overlap the purpose of etudes?  I did not grow up working on etudes, am trying to incorporate them more into my teaching in a logical structure, finding that a lot of what I am doing with the etudes is doubling the things I was doing with scales (e.g. bowing variations) and working through: what are purposes and balance of both of them, and how can I use both in the most logical way to build my kids?  Without spending the entirety of a 30-minute lesson on scales and etudes?  :)
Now we are in the twilight zone of violin pedagogy. One of the interesting aspects of v.commie (apart from my cats gonads) is the differing but equally valid perspectives one can find on how it should be done.
There is I seem to recall, one world class player here who doesn`t bother much with etudes at all and does it all with scales. That seems quite feasible to me but takes an enormous amount of intellect and discipline. It`s no coincidence that player is very much part of the Heifetz lineage. Although its worth bearing in mind that Heifetz valued etudes very highly, calling Kreutzer `the violinists bible.` Not only did he continue using some of those and other etudes until the end, he insisted his students used them. One can see evidence of this in his masterclass videos. Zhakar Bron states that he has his pupils learn every single Kreutzer etude as a young player, and then again when they are older at a more polished and artistic level.   Szeryng`s favorite was Don’t opus 35 no 1 which he practice regularly for the whole of his career.
Yet again, Drew Lecher produced his wonderful technique manual because (I thnk I`m right in saying) he felt that the traditional route through piles of etudes was way too cumbersome. To my mind his system (it`s definitely a system) is actually a distillation of the contents of traditional etude books into effective exercises so it kind of lies halfway between scales (a lthough it is also part scale manual)  and etudes for me.   I would be quite happy to teach technique using only that book with many students. It is a resource that teachers who feel pushed for time could use to get round the problem of the original quote.
But for me, studies are such a wonderful rich and musical resource I think it is a great shame that the demands of modern time and lifestyle have somehow relegated so many of them to the sidelines. I would love to see young people learn not only all the Mazas, but Don’t opus 37 (preparatory to Kreutzer- a description I can`t really agree with) Kreutzer, Rode, etc. but the less used and equally powerful DeBeriot, Dancla, Vieutemps and so on. As far as I am concerned the role of etudes is a vital link in the learning process.  
First of all one learns scales and technique which if you like tends to exercise the brain more than the heart. This is the absolute nuts and bolts of technique.   Then students need to grasp how technique and music interact. This can be done by working on music alone with more advanced players but youngsters or beginners don`t have the same level of musical sensiticity yet so using etude sis a kind of half way house in which one can make more obvious and concrete musical demands and establish how they are achieved technically without the full on emotional and artistic demands of concert repertoire.
In the same way etudes develop three o other things: stamina,  memory and musical style.   An etude is shorter than a concert work but can be used to provide an appropriate level of physical overload (for want of a better word) to ease a student into the next level of stamina. Violin playing is a very physical business at the end of the day. In the same way, a shorter and slightly more regular etude is a good way to develop the skill of memorization and the subconscious build up of patterns that will later emerge in the repertoire itself. In a sense when one picks up a concerto itt is already fifty percent learned. Thirdly, one cannot feed students wolhfart, Kayser and Dancla as things on a page that don`t relate to their composer and country of origin. They can and should be approached with a different sense of style which may be reflected very concretely in the way the bow and left hand is used. In this way one is emphasizing to the student that if the play Intro and Rondo Capric and a Beethoven sonata side by side they cannot use the same style and manner of sound, vibrato, bow speed etc.
A thirty minute lesson is a pain in the arse and really all one can do is emphasize efficiency. The first five minutes are scales, perform an etude while the teacher circles the areas where there is a problem. Give one line of the next etude to be prepared and hear the pieces. But I suppose one might do one lesson a month on scales and etudes only.   Or have special etude and scales festivals where all students attend and perform.

June 8, 2011 at 11:13 PM ·

 Someone who is only having a 30-minute lesson is really still a beginner, and probably in the Hrimaly (or similar) book. In that case, I just have them do one major and one minor scale. That should take 5-7 minutes. The whole purpose here is to get familiar with the idea of major and minor, and where the half steps are. Every few lessons we quickly fill in a circle of 5ths chart, or at least part of one.

If the student is in Flesch scales, then almost by definition, they shouldn't still be having a 30 minute lesson. In that case, then if you ask what is to be gained by playing scales, I'd answer the following:

1. principles of shifting. Very important on the first page of each key (the 1-octave 1-string scales).

2. comfort in high positions, especially on low strings.

3. Ability to use appropriate contact point in high positions--often a big weakness in most students.

3. bow division and distribution. Acceleration exercises teach the right arm how to distribute bow among single, then slurred 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 12, 16 notes efficiently (how my students are required to play them).

I tell my students that scales should be 50% bow use.

There is too much technique to be had out of scales that a good teacher should never describe them as "mindless repetition."  A little imagination will help propel a student into another level using scales.

June 8, 2011 at 11:48 PM ·

for people with dentures `rindless mepetition` is quite helpful....

June 9, 2011 at 01:29 AM ·

Those Mazas studies are really very Melodious with scale runs between the double stops and double stopped thirds played as scales...........


I can play leap frog with scales.......jump one, back one, jump one...........


I can play snakes 'n' ladders with scales......up three, back one, up three, back one.........


I can play........................

June 9, 2011 at 05:18 AM ·

To continue on where Scott Cole's post seemed to leave off, whereas scales can be rattled off on a piano in a mechanical, typewriter, way, it's hardly possible to practise scales on the violin without addressing some point of musicality. It's quite hard NOT to engage the brain !

At the beginning, the player learns basic musical geography. Later on, scale practice addresses position changing, string crossing, set-up of left-hand shapes, intonation, change of bow-contact point in ascending the string, etc. etc.

June 9, 2011 at 12:28 PM · Thank you all! The students I'm thinking of are the ones who are starting to have the basic geography mastered (2 oct, most key sig, moving into 3 oct as shifting ability grows); and your responses are very helpful to me to do a better job directing their continued meaningful progress! I kind of had the seeds of a lot of those ideas in my brain but needed help fleshing it out into an organized system. I do have the flesch scales but there's so much info there I want to start with a little clearer organization in my own mind of what, when, and why. Just bought the barbara barber scales book for an experiment, and it may do the job well as my kids move into 3 octave. So can I throw one more question on the end related to the etudes part? I've actually been wondering if it might not be helpful for some of my students to rebalance the equation so that the etudes are the main "meat" of their lesson. Not to leave pieces off of course but 1) to give more objective/clear-goaled practice direction and 2) to build more skills through the etudes so most technique is already there for the pieces. then one piece at a time which is hopefully easily mastered, refined musically, and reviewed. As opposed to what I've done in the past which is to teach a lot of technique through the pieces, it's worked ok in terms of progression and readiness for the next thing, but it's resulted in less polish as students either get tired of working on the piece or it's hard to keep all aspects excellent as they move into "performance" mode. Thoughts/alternate solutions? I probably should start another thread....

June 9, 2011 at 03:47 PM ·


Having etudes as the "meat" of your student's studies really depends on their personality and where they are. For example, I have 11-year olds that have 30 minute lessons and need to play more repertoire or they'll get bored and quit. On the other hand, I have an 11-year old who takes weekly 90-minute lessons and we spend 30 minutes on Flesch scales (and she does them meticulously).

Here's a suggestion for Flesch: Ease into it. When I first start a student in Flesch, we ONLY play the first 2 bars of each number (just the 1-octave scale and the major/minor arpeggios). The issues of shifting and comfort in the high positions are enough. You can do that and then alternate with the 3-octave scale and first 2 arpeggios each week.

Only after we've covered much or all of the book do we start adding in more of the scales. I have them memorize a set of different bowings: separate, slur 2, slur 2 starting with one separate note (to put the string crossings/shifts in different places), slur 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 16. I tell them if they can play the 1-octave scale twice in one down-bow then twice in one up bow, they really know the scale. Being systematic and giving them an ultimate goal helps to fend of boredom.


June 9, 2011 at 08:42 PM ·


as Scott notes, a lot of students would be turned off by using scales as the meat of the lesson.

I think the actuall issue you raise here is `student as independent learner.`   IE consider that most violin playing is actually done away form the teacher.   Therefore it is not so much you using scales for a large part of the lesson but rather a state of understanding  in which you teach students how to think for themselves and be creative when they practice scales.  The second stage is to have students apply this same attitude and the same ceative techniques to the practice of their pieces.

Just as an example I had a visit form someone the other day who had been introduced to the Galamian scales,  was playing a lot of difficult materials (very well in fact) but not really making a serious commitment to the scale system .  The player stated that becaus eof the amount of works she had no time to do the scales.  But,  when I checked how she practiced it lacked any of te `puzzle` approach aspect that would have come form the scales.  In other words because there was no transfer between scale work (very litlte anyway) and music  in terms of appraoch it wa staking her twice as long to learn pieces as it should.



June 10, 2011 at 12:43 AM ·

 It boggles me that people spend years playing scales straight up and down when the sequence of notes can be varied so much. Take a leaf out of Pat Metheny's book:

June 10, 2011 at 03:17 AM ·

 As an adult amateur, I use the Galamian scales as my warm-up and Zen time between work and music.  The first progression with whole notes is focused on relaxation and setting my left hand.  The second moves towards intonation and tone production.  The third starts focusing on fluid shifts.  The fourth and upwards gets me ready to start tackling whatever I'm working on at the moment.  

I've used the bowings from Kreutzer #2 in my daily scales, watched myself in the mirror for stature, and generally focus on what my body is doing (or not doing) and notice how it relates to my sound during scale practice.  I won't start a practice session or lesson without scales first!


June 10, 2011 at 04:17 PM ·

Thank you all for your great feedback.  Thanks especially to Buri and Scott for your thoughtful answers, I appreciate it.  Had a wonderful set of lessons this week and your responses have really helped me organize my ideas of how to approach some of these important steps.  You'll probably get more of my meanderings throughout the summer as one of my goals this summer is to review my teaching at these levels.  Hoping to see if some of the super-pros in my area will let me sit in on their lessons, and you guys are a fantastic sounding board as I figure out how to make things practical for my studio.  Next up--the concept of the one-point lesson as applied to the advancing (for me that means late beginner/early intermediate) student.  But not today!  :)

June 10, 2011 at 04:27 PM ·

 Just for the record , can you each play the first finger note in first position and then slide the hand up till the thumb makes contact with the neck curve without aiming at any particular note --and drop the first finger. Tell me exactly what note you get. Compare that test with each student. Start each post here with the note that sounds for you.  The inacuracy built into some violins over hundreds of years is part of the history of violins.  This will affect accuracy of intionation.      Do you compel them to play scales if they are always in tune?

I'm not sure what this statement means. 

June 10, 2011 at 07:56 PM ·


I guess I'm still not sure what to make of your hypothesis. Is it possible someone can't play in tune because there's a problem with the violin? I suppose. But it's more likely that they don't play in tune because they don't practice scales (or anything else) carefully. For 99.999% of the world, I wouldn't blame the fiddle. I think there's a bell curve for intonation sensitivity--most people hear and care a little, a few can't hear and don't care, and a few are very bothered by poor intonation and care enough to fix it.

I have a feeling that any luthier could find fault with any violin that's brought into the shop. They take out their micrometer and suddenly you have the worst piece of dog-sh!t in the world and need to buy another one. Wouldn't surprise me in the least.


June 11, 2011 at 12:29 AM ·

<<<<<<<When the violinist shifts upwards ,  the body of the violin and the neck curve are an indicator to aid the finger positions.>>>>>>>>>>


You must be joking? What about antisipating the note shifted to? What about hearing the note in your head before shifting? This is how my hand consistently finds positions because there are not any land marks on my fiddle. 

June 11, 2011 at 01:50 AM ·


June 11, 2011 at 04:39 AM ·

"You must be joking? What about antisipating the note shifted to? What about hearing the note in your head before shifting? This is how my hand consistently finds positions because there are not any land marks on my fiddle. "

Try saying that truthfully after playing the er-hu, which actually has no landmarks.

Tactile feedback from the hand regarding the feel of the instrument plays a larger role in intonation than your post seems to imply. Compared to the er-hu, the violin's topography is extremely conducive to using "landmarks" for physical feedback and aiding intonation: the changing width (and thickness) of the neck and fingerboard, the heel, and the upper bout all help provide feedback that helps your hand identify where it is and match it with where it should be, whether you'd like to acknowledge that or not.

I studied the er-hu for a little over one year with a teacher who is also more than proficient at viola. During that period of time I managed to attend one of his quartet's performances, which featured repertoire including viola and er-hu. On viola his intonation was flawless. Nothing that triggered any alarms for me. When he switched to the er-hu, he had a few noticeable lapses in intonation. You can't say that his ears aren't trained - they quite clearly are. But it goes to support the notion that abundance of tactile feedback and landmarks on viola are an advantage that the er-hu does not provide, and the notion that one really can't just 'ear' his way to good intonation without acknowledging and taking advantage of an instrument's topography.

I am fairly certain that John's concern is that a poorly set-up instrument with a string length unsuited to the instrument size and shape will significantly change what pitches on the string these landmarks on the instrument typically correspond to. Even more so considering the variable quality of lower-priced student instruments, which can set learners with the wrong expectations of how a violin should feel when played.


June 11, 2011 at 06:16 AM ·

 @ John Cadd and others :-

So we practise scales to prove our violin is the wrong size and shape and therefore IT'S NOT OUR FAULT ???

June 11, 2011 at 05:28 PM ·

 John's concern's about non-standard violin size/string length would only be an issue if the player had to use a different violin every day. Luckily we are not pianists...

June 11, 2011 at 10:56 PM ·

June 11, 2011 at 11:40 PM ·

That would be good practise to use a different violin every day, one would be forced to develop auditory skills. How about using a 3/4 size violin then change to a viola? Because  first position on the 3/4 maybe like playing in 3rd position on the 4/4 and in 3rd position on the viola might be like playing in 1st on the 4/4, I dunno, I did'nt take any measurements? But when the auditory sense is involved a few millimetres makes not any difference at all.

Sure would get lost looking for land-marks swapping between these sizes. How does a spider crawl up a wall, I don't see any land-marks?

June 12, 2011 at 12:32 AM ·

I have no problems swapping between violin and cello.  For instance, this Monday I'll be playing violin in an orchestra rehearsal in the morning, and a few hours later playing cello in a string quartet in the afternoon.

June 12, 2011 at 01:47 AM · John, I think your point is interesting, maybe getting weird reactions bc it doesn't really seem to be related to the thread. Probably where it would have most practical application is figuring out why a note that is aurally in tune is not ringing right-not getting the correct resonance with the instrument. That I can see. However, except perhaps for an awareness of the possibility I don't see a reason why it should change scale practicing since #1 you can still learn to play in tune on your instrument even if its not standardized 100% with all other instruments; #2 intonation does have an element of art "almost" beyond exact science anyway as evidenced by all the thread about temperaments and such...we have to know how to adjust to a situation. But I still need my scales for the msucle memory of my baseline. As far as the resonance peculiarities go.....maybe a subject for another thread?

June 12, 2011 at 07:30 AM ·

 Sure would get lost looking for land-marks swapping between these sizes. How does a spider crawl up a wall, I don't see any land-marks?


Oh, the tangled threads we weave,

When we practice

Play in tune

June 13, 2011 at 03:30 AM ·

June 13, 2011 at 05:17 AM · Bowing styles can very definitely be taught via scales. And I am with Buri on this one (except maybe his last sentence ;), as a teacher I am never bored listening to scales. Pained sometimes :) but not bored, there is always something to listen for and improve. I enjoy practicing them myself and with my students for that reason, and when I'm able to communicate that to my student they enjoy it too. Still working on that hence this thread! Side note though-I introduced several of my studnets to their first etude book this week, and the concept of how to practice each etude as a means to a specific goal and then as a puzzle to contunally find soemthing you can do with it e.g. technique, intonation, bowing variations etc....well without exception every one of them said "Cool this is fun!" Happy teacher!!! :)

June 15, 2011 at 04:55 PM · Haha, the vain repetition is what I'm trying to avoid, but it doesn't always take with the studentns!

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