What's the best way to practice scales?

April 20, 2012 at 05:41 AM · So I have a big violin exam coming up in a few weeks and my pieces and etudes are in great shape but my scales are still lacking. They have improved a lot over the past few weeks but I still find myself modulating sometimes (Especially on C# and F#...and on some other minors). We have to play 3 octave major and melodic minor scales and arpeggios. Any suggestions for how to practice these rather than just running through them over and over. Thanks!

Replies (26)

April 20, 2012 at 07:23 AM · Get something that can play a drone on the root pitch of the scale, so you have a reference pitch to tune to.

Eventually, you'll need to be able to internalize reference pitches so you can stay in tune no matter what you play.

April 20, 2012 at 07:47 AM · Greetings,

I agree completely with Gene that in the end it has to be based on hearing.

I would add that you have answered your own question. What I mean by this is that yo

U say indirectly that you simply run through scales. Of co

Use you are struggling. A scale is no different from a piece of music in this regard: would you play through a piece of music over and over without identifying the difficult bits, analyzing the problem and coming up with a slow and thoughtful solution so that the brain is programmed like a computer to do it correctly?

I do't think so.

Why then are you willing to leave your brain un programmed in the scale department?

The fact you can' t play them safely is because you brain does not know what to tell the fingers to do!

What are you going to do about that?

BTW although ther ware many invaluable ways to practice scales one really technique is to simply play the top octave up and down . Do it until it is perfect and then move up a semi tone and repeat procedure. The top octave is generally the weakest part of the scales so work in just that area. Once slow practice here is under control add rhythms to make the mind work harder. Dotted rhythm and reverse may be enough at this stage.

Also practice only the first finger without the notes I

N between. Does it know where it is supposed to go. If not, how w

Ll the other fingers even begin....



April 20, 2012 at 02:53 PM · Slur groups, and after each group stop and look (or think) ahead to the next:

2, 3, 4, 6, 8. 9 12, 16. Also, no reason you can't do 5 and 7 either.

When you can do any kind of grouping you know the scale. If you suddenly try to slur 7, for example, and fall apart, then you don't yet know the scale. Ideally, your left hand should be so secure that no change of patter should throw you off.

If you get lost or modulate, it's likely in high on the E. In that case, only play the upper octave. In 3-octave scales, there's little shifting taking place on the lower 3 strings. In other words, you may be wasting some time on the easy parts.

April 21, 2012 at 11:40 PM · A thing that always helps me memorize scales is to play them in different rhythms. You could try triplets, dotted quarter notes, eighth notes, anything that you know. Another thing I like to do is "add a note" Which you play a scale like this:









I hope this helps! :)

April 21, 2012 at 11:42 PM · Greetings,

the add a note method is -really- good.



April 22, 2012 at 03:03 AM · Thanks for all the ideas everyone! I will definately be trying them all in my practice throughout the net few weeks! I really appreciate it!

April 22, 2012 at 02:12 PM · Yeah I have a really hard time with that because I will feel like I am playing the right scale but then end on the wrong note...basically I just missed a half step or something in there somewhere. I have been really trying to focus on the whole and half steps between each note.

April 22, 2012 at 02:34 PM · Emily, Gene's recommendation on practicing with a drone is a very good one.

My teacher gave me a series of 2 octave scale "patterns" in 3 different positions to work on. Each line uses a different note/finger pattern (e.g. 1-2-3-4; 1-2-4-3; 1-3-4-2, etc..). I do these with a drone and rhythms. It takes about a week with a 'new' key to get the 'tones' in my head.

April 22, 2012 at 04:08 PM · I think as you play a scale it helps to have the arpeggio in your mind's ear. This creates musical anchor points that will help keep your scale from drifting. Just don't accent the notes!

You certainly don't want to have a bad audition just because of your scales. You don't want the jury saying, "The spirit was willing ... but the Flesch was weak."

April 22, 2012 at 08:06 PM · The drone is one way, another is to verify the integrity of every whole and half step.

A very simplified way of thinking about it is to ensure every whole step sounds like the first interval in "Happy Birthday" and every half step like the opening interval sequence of the theme from the movie "Jaws." :)

April 22, 2012 at 10:16 PM · I like to sit at the piano, hold the sustain pedal and play (in octaves) the root of the scale in the bass register. then, I play the scale on violin over the piano.

April 23, 2012 at 12:56 AM · Greetings,

I know this stuff is important and a lot of smart people invest Aretha deal of time and thought into such issues.

With apologies to all and sundry , this is just me, I think the issue has become mostly bunk.

Saying that people hear things differently and there are all these different tuning systems blah blah is tiring, unhelpful and used as a cop out by too many people.

Tune your violin ion fifths as accurately as you can without intricate debates on temperament and then play in tune with your open strings above all else.

Very sorry , buto if you are out of tuner, you are out of tune. Period. As Milstein said 'you are either in tune or not.'

It really is that simple and if you are out of tune people know it straight alway. No over intellectual waffling is going to substitute for learning to play in tune right from the beginning by checking on open strings. Too many lazy teachers

Too many lazy students.



April 23, 2012 at 02:03 AM · I agree that the difference between the violin's "temperament" and the piano's is greatly overstated. When you play the violin, it's sound is so resonant that the listener can tell when it is not being played in tune with itself (with open strings and internal resonances -- what teachers often call "ring tones").

Try tuning your violin against another violin and you will see it's very easy to get an extremely accurate match as long as your pegs are working. You can tune against the piano but there's nowhere near the same intimacy of the two pitches.

April 23, 2012 at 10:36 AM · hi Buri,

it would be really kind of you to shed light, then, on what Simon fischer means by playing a note (leading note, for instance) sharper than in other cases- or flatter- leading to particular higher notes or lower notes in his Scales book. In such a case, is he not indicating that there is a certain margin - albeit really small- of choice..where one performer can be marginally sharper or flatter than the other depending on how much tension or harmonic accordance with which they might wish to play?

i recall one of his posts here where he suggests tuning the strings to not exact fifths (slightly narrower than fifths?). for myself as a non-advanced student, as the very notion of perfect fifths is something i have to grow into to even think of growing out of...it is getting easier for me to tune my violin in perfect fifths but it would be an ordeal to know how far away from the perfect fifths to deviate from.

aside, there is a section in simon fischer's dvd where one of his students is playing slightly sharperm endowing the sound with edginess...and simon f. then corrects him and its a very nice illustration of the difference in tone. actually, that DVD is much more than the sum of its categorical parts ( i.e. the 5(i think) main tone production excercises ).

p.s. i edited the first paragraph slightly

April 23, 2012 at 10:51 AM · I have to agree with Buri and say that I too think there is a lot of hot air and quite frankly bull**** written about scales and tuning. If you want to play scales in tune then have a butcher's at the notes and then just use your ears. End of story, even for an outback rider.

April 23, 2012 at 07:42 PM · Greetings,

hi Tammuz. That`s a reasonable question. Actually it is not quite the same point although it is related.

First of all take a look at the whole system Simon has so clearly laid out. He explains step by step how to set a framework for scales beginning with the notes that don@t need to be varied. This is the first area where we can cut out the waffle. Having set up an accurate framework for the scale there is a certain amount of leeway for bending leading notes up or down. This does depend to soe degre eon indovidual taste but needs to be done. Just because someone plays this note sharper of flatter than someone else does not mean eithe rplayer is out of tune. It is somewhat a question of taste, style and musical intent. The point is there is a certain range within which the note may vary slightly and stil be in tune. Tis is not the same the kinds of thing as the more complex discussions are aout. The essential character of the violin is based on tis slight bending tension according to key.

What appears to be somewhat subjective is actually very clear and cocnrete.

The problem arises when discussions start saying `who says this is not in tune` (read as anything goes as long as you can justify it intellectually `) or even worse `tune with the piano or tuner and you will be okay.` Then the leading otes are out of tune . period. Any one who says they are not has no feeling for or understanding of the character of the violin and how it is different from the piano. If your leading notes are in tune with the paino you are wrong.

It`s actually a fairly simple point if you go back to the framework. Just follow the instructions and push up the notes as necessary. You can`t really go wrong. This training will ultimately sensitize your ear to how the violin works and you will learn gretaer freedom to bend notes slightly.

Once you get to playing with others the issue becomes a little more complex because there is more than one answer depending on the context. Does one play like Casals who had marvellous intonation but played at odds with the piano at all times. This can sound odd for example in te opening of the Mozart e minor piano and violin sonata when the two instruments are in unison. I would rather not call it playing with temepred intonation here. better to just say that in a local context you are listening and adapting.

But this abilty to adapt and be aware of the nature of keys is fundamental and perfectly straight forward. Beginners and intermediate studnets don{t need a load of waffle that can be translated intoa lassez faire I can justify anything approach.



April 24, 2012 at 03:01 PM · I have found with some of my students playing with a drone can help intonation in scales. I feel it is more useful to set the drone to the Dominant of the scale rather than the Tonic.

Cheers Carlo

April 24, 2012 at 05:53 PM ·

April 25, 2012 at 08:38 PM · hi Buri,

thanks for the explanation; it helps a lot. sure, i'm not taking simon fischer's approach as a pretext for sloppy intonation and i wasn't trying to say...simply to understand how -and to what extent- intonation itself can bea medium of expression.

April 25, 2012 at 09:54 PM · Greetings,

Good heavens , Tammuz San.. I didn't think anything like that for a moment. It was a very valid question.



April 25, 2012 at 10:32 PM · "Who decides if the high notes are in tune. Different people hear those notes differently . "

Pitch on the violin, as has been said too many times to mention, has more to do with resonance, not different tuning systems. For example, if you play a high A, E, D, or G or related pitches anywhere on the violin, it will sound out of tune if they are not ringing with the open strings. Either the fiddle is ringing, or it's choked off. There's really no leeway here.

April 25, 2012 at 10:58 PM · But thats where Fischer's scales is fascintating. Basically, there is only one way to play a note that has an open string and that is in tune with it. There is also only one way to play a fourth/fifth and that is in perfect harmony. Beyond that, however, there is lots of room for individual interpretation - and from what I can glean, really good players use a different scale depending on the mood/message of the piece. Thus, for a major scale the third/7th is (usually) played sharp but how sharp depends on the player. The implication is that the second/6th then has to be adjusted so that it is half way between the 1st and the third to keep the tone divisions even.

one big big implication of all this is that each scale will end up with its own character. This I think is different from an even tempered instrument where (correct me if I am wrong please) you can transcribe a piece with little outcome on its sound. For the string instrument a piece played in G major will have a very different character from one played in C. Why? Because the notes that are inviolate - those open strings - fall at a different point in the scale.

Did I get that right?

April 26, 2012 at 01:16 AM · Elise,

Atta girl!

You may leave the temple.


April 26, 2012 at 03:25 AM · Buri: :)

Using Fischer or my post above as the clue, would anyone care to guess what scale this is (starting on the G string):

:) :D ;) :) :) :D ;) :)


April 26, 2012 at 04:58 PM · I guessed A major but maybe I need help with the emoticons. if :D is an open string then it would have to be C.

I tried that add-a-note method yesterday and wow, very good for intonation.

May 20, 2012 at 02:37 PM · A lot of cynicism in some of these posts.

Personally, I like to transmit my awareness of different versions of the same interval to my students, who, I am glad to say, are not yet deaf!!

Notes played alone on the upper half of the E-string tend to sound flattish: this is ear physiology, not musicianship. And we won't all agree on how flat!

If folks find that tuning a scale by ear from the open strings works without modification when playing with a piano should perhaps choose another instrument..

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide


Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine