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Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Big Whyne

If there is one thing that students consistently whine about, it's the scale assignment. I have to vigilantly monitor whether my students are practicing their scale assignment and in what manner. Even when I have put the parent in charge of the scale assignment, I still have to check up to make sure that the assigned homework is being done.

Mostly the whine is about "why":
  • Why do I have to play scales?
  • Why are scales important?
  • Why can't we do something fun instead?
  • Why can't I practice something else?
  • Why can't I do something else? What value is there in practicing scales anyway?
  • Why can't we skip practicing scales, since we get scales practice in our songs anyway?
  • Why are you torturing me?
Well, OK, maybe I do not hear this last complaint so much (unless I am putting the student through my "homework lesson."* [see my footnote below for an explanation of the "homework lesson."])

Why do we practice scales? Why do teachers assign scales? Why has this assignment been passed along from teacher to student for so many generations? There must be a reason, or several. How does a teacher explain the value to a student or parent?

This year one of my talented violin students decided to add piano lessons to his schedule. Because he already played the violin so well, it did not take very long before he was really cooking on the piano. I actually skipped right past the usual popular piano methods and started him on the old John Thompson books, which are my initial piano studies. I enjoyed these books because they provided a great deal of intellectual stimulation, and because they included historical and other information with each song. I have not used these books with my students ever, but with this particular student, I knew I would need something really interesting to spur him to the next level of excitement.

As I revisited my old John Thompson memories with my pupil, I viewed the lessons from the teacher's perspective, which is not something I would have had as a student. One of the first discoveries I made is that John Thompson helps the student to discover and remember how it feels to play in various keys. One set of songs may teach the student how it feels to play in C Major. Another set will focus on G major, and so on. As my student and I discussed these song sets, we started exploring the feel of the various keys.

Since my student was well versed in music theory, I helped him understand a basic chord progression of I - IV - V - V7 - I. We learned this first in C major, which every pianist can tell you feels completely balanced and centered on the piano. When my student learned the G major chord progression, he learned that there was a little bit of a "tail upswing" to the left in that key (due to the F#). We noted and discussed how that felt. We discovered the similar feeling in D major. In F major we discovered no tail, but there was a spreading of the hands between the thumb and index finger (left hand) and thumb and third finger (right hand).

Do not underestimate the value of feeling. Music involves all aspects of our brain or at least more areas of our brains than required by other activities. Kinesthetic sensation plays a valuable part in a musician's craft. My young student discovered this phenomenon for himself in our "key feeling" lesson.

So I will argue that one main purpose in practicing scales is to develop the kinesthetic sensation of playing in various keys. What else?

When I am comfortable playing in a key, I can play quickly. I have practiced the particular physical sensations or developed the muscle memory that allows me to play fast. Repetition in practice teaches my muscles the memory of how the notes and finger patterns feel in relation to each other. Practicing scales helps me to develop more strongly my muscle memory.

Practicing scales also helps to develop my aural skills. Various scale patterns make different demands on my aural reception. For example, I note that my freshman university students generally have difficulty playing a diminished arpeggio. It may take an entire semester before I can help them to successfully hear and play the diminished interval in an arpeggio. Once a student learns the major scales, the student then moves on to learn how to hear and play minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic, and even Dorian).

There is a mental and visual aspect to learning scales. Mentally, a musician needs to be able to think in a particular key, which includes reading in a particular key. The mental and visual aspects make a connection with the physical.

Have I convinced you yet of the value of practicing scales? The purpose of this post was to impress on you the importance of performing a scale practice on a regular basis, preferably daily. My purpose was not to discuss what a good scale practice routine would be. That is the subject of a future post.

Please leave a  comment with your argument about why practicing scales is important.

PS: Here is a good explanation written by an LA cellist ("Clemzilla") to the Internet Cello Society Foreum, Cello Chat!:
When asked why they should practice scales, I always make a point to tell my students that "scales are the alphabet of the musical language." I then draw the analogy to the English aphabet, and how the various letters can be combined to form hundreds of thousands of different words. Furthering the analogy, I point out that young students need to learn how the word "cat " is spelled before they can negotiate words like  "catapult," "catalogue" or "catastrophe."

Next, I explain to them that arpeggios, scales and scale fragments make up the lion's share of Western Art Music... and the more well-versed they are in playing these elements, the more fluid, natural and attractive their playing will be. But I don't stop there. I then ask them to open ANY piece or etude... and immediately begin pointing out all scale fragments beginning with the earliest example. After about half a page of these examples, and they begin to 'get it.' We move on to arpeggios- same results.

Last step: I ask them, "do you realize that I don't actually read every note on the page?" Typically, they are shocked... until I explain. "I've been playing scales for so long, I see them measures ahead. I note the first pitch of the scale fragment and the last, and skip over everything in between. My fingers 'fill in the blanks.' Same goes for arpeggios. It's the same as when you read from a page of a novel... you aren't actually looking at every letter on the page, are you? No, you're actually reading the shapes of the words. The only time I actually slow down during the fragments is when there are accidentals present. but I have time to do it because I haven't wasted time reading every single note. Nowadays, I probably only study about 40-60% of the actual notes on the page... fewer, if it's a piece I've played many times. It's a shortcut that allows me to play with more fluidity and LOTS less effort... but it only became a feature of my playing after I'd committed these scales to memory. Better results with less work- pretty good deal, eh?" [At this point, I usually play them the second and third Rococo variations, complete with running descriptive narrative, just to drive home the point]

I finish this little speech thusly: "Look- it's going to take about 3 months of solid study before these scales start to become owned by you. You can do it in 3 months by spending an hour per day on them for the next 90 days, or you can stretch that 3-month period out over the span of YEARS, if you only spend a few minutes on them, every now and then. The choice is yours- invest a lot now, and start reaping the rewards early, or invest a little- and make slower, more painful progress. It'll cost you the same 3 months either way."

This approach works on about 40% of my kids. The other 60% continue to struggle, but get no sympathy from me when they whine... they get the same closing to my initial speech all over again, followed by: "How much of your 3 months have you invested?"

The difference between the quality of an 'average' player (whatever 'average' means) and a top-notch artist is eloquence: how effortlessly and attractively one articulates the language. The vast bulk in acheiving eloquence is in efficiently reading the story on the page. Relegating the fundamentals of the laguage to second-nature is the first big step toward approaching eloquence in one's delivery. Now, one might not ever aceive the same level of artistry as a Feuermann or Rostropovich, but without these base skills, they have no shot whatsoever.

For me, it matters less what method or book is used as the vehicle, as it matters that the student know why scale study is necessary. Grab their imagination, shine the light of truth upon their current status, and convince them that the difference between what they sound like and what the want to sound like begins with scales and arpeggios.... and you have a shot with them. Face it: a teacher can only motivate so much from the studio... the bulk of the motivation to progress must come from the student himself. Without a clear reason to do the boring work of cello practice, noone is going to invest the time and energy. My approach gives them not only a reason to play scales, it entices them with promises of cleaner, better playing and also gives them a timeline to shoot for- important, particularly where young persons are concerned.

Humbly submitted: perhaps it's not the book as much as the sales pitch.

just another .02,



  1. We practice scales daily , it is obviously better for us to do scales before actually playing the piece, can feel difference

  2. We find many scale and arpeggio passages in all kinds of music. Learning and practicing our scales helps to prepare us for playing these - we will already know how they feel and sound and look.