As aspiring musicians we know that we should practice our scales regularly. But practicing scales can be boring at times, as well as difficult. How can we check our intonation when practising at home? How do we know that we’ve got that scale right? What exercises should we be doing to improve our technique?
I developed the app Scales Practice to help with my technical work. You can pick a scale, see the notes and then press play to hear them. There are also count in beats so that you have time to pick up your instrument and play along to check your pitch.
Below I cover in more detail why it’s so important to do regular scales practice, and give some exercises which I use to make it more effective and interesting!
Why do we need to practice our scales?
There are a number of reasons why scales practice and other technical work is so important. Music is composed of basic patterns such as scales and arpeggios and by studying these, when you start new pieces of music you will already have learnt some of their basic parts. This can be particularly important for sight reading as you will already know in advance how certain patterns will go.
Scales practice also helps you to focus on other aspects of your playing that are crucial to a good performance. When you are playing a piece of music there are lots of things to think about – am I playing the notes right? Is the tempo correct? Have I got the right rhytmn etc. It can be very difficult to focus on the quality of sound that you are producing or your control of tempo when you have a difficult passage of notes to contend with. Playing a scale you know well gives you the opportunity to practice different techniques on your instrument without having to think about notes. Practising scales also gives you an opportunity to ‘navigate’ your instrument and learn where notes are placed.
Finally, knowing your scales helps you to think in a certain key so that when playing a piece you are not having to constantly think about which notes are flat and which are sharp. This is essential when sight reading and also helps you learn pieces faster.
Below are some of the principles and exercises that I use in my regular scales practice.
1. Start slow
I always start learning a new scale at a very slow tempo, reading the notes one at a time, and focusing on intonation. I use the Scales Practice app to help me with this by setting a very low BPM and playing along listening carefully to the pitch of each of the notes.
2. Speed up (but not too much…)
Once I have grasped how the notes within a scale sound I will practice at faster speed, but return to practising slowly now and again to make sure that I am still playing the notes correctly.
3. Focus on quality of sound
When playing scales I focus not just on intonation but also the quality of the sound which I am producing. I am a string player, and therefore I think carefully about how I am putting weight through the bow, where my bow is placed, my string crossings etc.
4. Practice dynamics
Scales practice is a good time to focus on playing different dynamics. Try playing a whole scale louder and quieter. Once you have mastered this you can try varying dynamics within a scale, for example adding in a crescendo.
5. Practice different rhythmic patterns
As a string player I will try out different bowing patterns during my scales practice, for example different patterns of slurs, playing stocatto etc. You can also try different rhythmic patterns, for example playing semiquavers or triplets looking for strong, even notes.
6. Try playing without looking at the notes
To learn different keys you should practice your scales without reading the notes. This is important for understanding how the key should sound when you play through a new piece.
7. Mix it up a bit
I don’t want to spend the whole week playing the same scale so at the beginning of the week I programme a series of scales into the Scales Practice app. I then use the app to pick one at random for me to play every day. It stops it from getting boring and also stops me from always playing the easy ones!
8. Start in a different place.
You don’t always have to start playing scales from the bottom. Try starting at the top, or in the middle of the scale.
In conclusion, scales practice is not just about learning scales but also improving your music playing in general. Use the opportunity to focus on intonation, quality of sound, and tempo.