I hate scales, but I also acknowledge the benefit of them. And no, I'm not just talking about the hidden benefit of being a better player or even nailing that verbatim A Major scale written directly into the third movement of Puszta. My favorite part of playing scales well is playing them fast. Really, really fast. A tempo I cannot get some of my other music up to.
I tried to fight scales every year of my degree. My very first long-term clarinet teacher didn't believe in playing scales every day as long as you knew them. So when I went to Florida State, and had to pass scale juries every semester. I suffered through test after test of major scales, harmonic minor scales, melodic minor scales, natural minor scales, thirds, dominant chords, etc. until I realized scales would only get better if one of the following things happened:
- There was no metronome during the test.
- The metronome wasn't set so high (quarter note = 72, and all the scales were in 32nd notes!)
- I didn't have to learn so many scales.
- I had more time to practice.
- I was better at clarinet.
Since none of those seemed possible I developed the following methods to learning my scales faster and as efficiently as possible. I learned all of this on clarinet, but these tips apply to almost any instrument (a little more loosely to voice, probably not percussion :P).
- Focus on your air. Super cliche, but the FIRST thing to go when you're playing something you think you know. In the midst of scale season, I was always panicked about getting them fast enough. It's tough when you're in a situation like that, but sound quality is so important. Besides the obvious reason, not because it makes learning your scales easier, but because it relieves tension while playing. And when you're playing at least 12 scales per day, the less tension, the less you hate your life.
- Print out your scales. Memorization will be key later, but before you memorize, you must visualize. I know they're easy to figure out, but most people are visual learners, and being able to read scales (and markup mistake points and tips) is more valuable than you probably realize.
- Write on your printed scales. This cannot be emphasized enough. No matter how embarrassed you are to write down helpful hints on scales, DO IT AND YOUR LIFE WILL BE EASIER. You'll notice all those "random" mistakes are actually always happening from Bb - C# in the altissimo register of d harmonic minor.
- Play them in order. For a really long time I tried to mix up the order of my scales every day so I wouldn't only know them in order. Turns out this is backwards (like not memorizing before visualizing). I started seeing real improvement in consistency and memorization when I played them in order every day and only mixed it up occasionally instead of the opposite.
- Only play as many as you play well and correctly. This is something I struggle with all the time. It's better to mess up 5 scales per day than play 1 correctly right? WRONG. Even if you feel doofy only playing one scale per day, even though you're 26 and getting a college degree in music, DO IT. School and teachers some times pressure you to learn faster than you're able. Your job as the student is to only practice what you can without working error into your playing. If this is truly the reason for doing something (as opposed to laziness), your teacher will understand.
- That goes for tempo as well - only as fast as you can play well and correctly. Mix it up: use the metronome, then don't. But whatever you do, don't play so fast that you mess up 3 times before you get to the scale the way you "should" be able to play it. Just like playing them in order most of the time so you can play them out of order when necessary, play them slow most of the time so you can play them fast when necessary.
- Make up scale songs and practice like you're learning a solo. This is my creative composer side coming out, but no shame in trying to enjoy scales. I liked to make up little songs that help me work on my weak areas. Additionally, use patterns, anchor notes, swung notes, and every other little trick you like to use for solo music. NO SHAME. Scales should sound just as pretty as an solo (even if they're a little more predictable).
Scales do not have to be scary or even boring, and they will make you a better player. Stick to it, and even the most frustrated of scale learners out there will eventually get it, even if it takes some time.
Still need help learning scales? The Nashua Community Music School has lesson teachers for all instruments that use scales! Request a lesson with us today!