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Scales practice is a subject of personal interest to me, perhaps in part due to my own development as a pianist. As is prevalent in many Asian countries, scales are learned and practised primarily for the purposes of passing ABRSM exams, and not usually integrated into a pupil’s learning on a weekly basis. It was not taught until perhaps a few months before an exam, and even so, pupils were often instructed to read the scales off the page. The result of this is that scales provide no musical satisfaction, nor is it interesting or fun. In combination with a lack of quality teaching of scales, the scales booklet also became a DIY booklet and pupils were often offered no advice towards practising them. This led to perhaps an eventual avoidance of (and incompetence in) scale-playing, in the belief that scales are a ‘necessary evil’ never to be mentioned, lest the teacher feels inclined to ask for one.
When I entered formal training at the Royal Northern College of Music as an undergraduate I was surprised by the teachers’ ferocious passion for scales and technique. I struggled at first. While I improved after being offered strategies to overcome this challenge, I have eventually come to the view that the benefit of scales is not only include technical control, but also a greater level of musicianship, understanding of key, as well as sight-reading and identifying patterns in music with speed – there is a great deal of potential in learning scales that Asian teachers simply do not generally explore.
This article therefore, intends to cover strategies for the practising of scales and in particular, find ways in which the practice becomes fun and meaningful. While the teaching of scales is equally important when it comes to creating motivation and interest for the pupil in the subject, it is primarily good teaching which enables this and I would like to focus this article on practice strategies instead. There are definitely more ways to practise scales than playing once from beginning to end…
Paul Harris, in his book Improve your Teaching!, suggests that a good teacher will mix and match left and right-brain oriented activities in the teaching of scales. I believe the same could be applied to the practising of scales. While the left-brain favours rational thinking and reading, the right-brain favours imagination and intuitive thinking. I felt it worthwhile to explore both avenues. The Music Teacher’s Companion published by the ABRSM also provided a list of ‘tried and tested’ practice strategies for scales, some of which I list below:
- Practise using different rhythmic, dynamic and articulation patterns to develop technical fluency and rhythmic evenness.
- Varying the tempo: slow practice for improving tone and intonation; fast practice for developing finger movement and fluency.
- Varying the accentuation (by playing in groups of 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8) will also develop evenness and control.
- For variety and a change of technical emphasis, begin at the top, descend and then finish at the top again.
- Begin scales on any note, such as B major beginning and ending on E.
- Play them legato ascending and staccato descending, then the other way round.
Obviously there are many more ways to practise scales, but as a starter, the above offers challenges by viewing scales from a different angle – how well do you really know the scale? Do you know it inside out? And do you still know it if I use a different cover or paint it in a new colour? To a seasoned teacher, there is a huge difference between what a student can play and what a student knows. These practice tools, in combination with good teaching, will get you from playing scales to knowing scales. Knowing scales offers huge benefits in understanding theory, harmony, technique, sound production, and overall musicianship.
Do have a try and see if it helps!