We all know scales are a vital part of a musician's daily practice regime which we blindly repeat day in and day out, why do we spend hours trying to master them? Why are they so important? Why do we need them and most importantly how can we implant them into our memories?
Scales and arpeggios are the building blocks of music forming the chords and harmony of the music you are playing. Chances are you are even playing scales without realising it! By learning scales, passages like the one below are instantly recognisable as groups or scales and arpeggios and do not need to be read note by note as the core patterns are locked into the fingers muscle memory.
Scales and arpeggios, if played properly, can strengthen many elements of a wind or brass player’s technique. Good pitch, breathing, air support, memory and tone can be addressed in a few minutes of slow and precise scale playing as well as warming up for your playing session.
It is hard to see scales as music rather than a technical exercise but most examiners would rather hear a slower, confident musically played scale than a quiet scale that is rushed. Playing all your scales loudly and slowly is a good way to practise this initially as your fingers will learn the patterns more solidly and strengthen your core sound.
Once the scale is played a few times, you know the key and the accidentals involved, this is the time to really ingrain it and smooth out any lumps and bumps along the way. I find listening to different kinds of scale helpful, each group have a distinct sound that you can imagine whilst you are playing them. See video below for the sounds of different scales:
Using different rhythms and articulations will also help as your fingers will need to move quicker in places they are not used too, this will ensure the scale is learnt thoroughly as it will be impossible to concentrate on notes as well as the patterns. A metronome can also help with keeping the scale even starting slower and upping the tempo.
Here are a few rhythmic patterns I like applying to the scale:
It is impossible to play every scale every day, there are just so many, so I make flash cards of all the scales I’m learning with a relevant arpeggio/ dominant 7th/ diminished 7th written on the back of the card. I will have two empty jars in front of me one labelled green and the other amber. As I play through the cards scales played well go in the green jar and scales with errors the amber jar. The scales in the amber jar get relearned and tested again the next day to try and get them in the green jar. I do this as a recap testing activity, if you have a parent or friend handy getting them to pick random cards and suggest dynamics/ articulations recreates the exam situation.
I love doing activities that encompass lots of scales in a short space of time, many advanced tutor books incorporate scales that flow from one into the other through all the keys over two or three pages but, although they are good, this can cause the player to become tired and not focus on the core playing elements, air and support. I only play half a page at a time.
A shortened exercise following the same principles is called crab scales and this involves quick thinking from the player so the fingers need to be steady and know what they are doing. I was taught this by a friend who was fantastic, you only play them one octave starting on your lowest note in that major key then at the top go up a semitone then down in the major key of your new note, up a semitone at the bottom etc…I need more practise at them but this will give you the general idea.
And finally, for a group of players, playing scales in rounds (the next person entering on the third of the previous persons scale) is a good way to warm up, recap scales and work on balance, blending and tuning within a group. Swapping who goes first also makes you more aurally aware of what is happening around you.
There's no escaping scales, so I say embrace them. Play them and become confident at them and you will learn to love scales. I guarantee you will 100% be a better musician for the time you invest.