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Why Scales? What a Simple Daily Exercise Can Do for Your Student

Updated on December 12, 2015

"Why Scales?"

Ever heard that question from a student? When I first began teaching music, I struggled to help my students understand the importance of learning and practicing scales. None of my students practiced scales, and it was always an eye-rolling affair when I worked on a scale at the beginning of each lesson. I would even have parents ask if we could skip to the important pieces that they were learning.

Why spend time drudging through scales when there are so many other exciting things to be playing on your instrument? If you or your student has ever struggled with finding the motivation to learn scales, here are some things you might consider:

Music Theory

An understanding of music theory is essential for any musician. In order to compose or improvise, music theory knowledge is a must. Even simply learning new music is much easier if you understand theory--theory lets you read musical “words” or “sentences” instead of reading one musical “letter” at a time.

What does that have to do with scales? Mastering scales is a simple and accessible gateway to a solid understanding of theory.

In western music, there are just 24 keys: 12 major, 12 minor. Those keys are the most basic of musical building blocks. Once a student knows all 12 major and 12 minor keys by heart, the rest of the fundamentals of music theory will follow.

Scales do more than just teach students the most elemental patterns of music: consistent scale study teaches students the concept of musical patterns. With that concept firmly established early in the learning process, students’ minds and eyes are opened to recognizing other musical patterns they will encounter as they progress.

Scale mastery is the most important theory training a student can get.

Muscle Memory

Musicians have to know where to find notes. Finding a tricky note in a difficult piece of music can be challenging. Repeated practice of the note in the context of the piece will, of course, improve the accuracy and speed of a student’s performance. Scale practice can make the process of learning tricky notes simpler. A student who has been consistently practicing scales (particularly in the key that a difficult piece is written in) will have a much more confident grasp of where particular notes are placed. This reduces the time required to nail down a difficult note, and improves speed and accuracy in the learning process.

Intonation and Ear Training

My husband jokes that his piano students always have perfectly consistent intonation (their intonation always improves after the piano tuner comes).

My cello students, however, spend years developing an ear for perfect intonation on their instrument. I have found that there is no better exercise for teaching intonation than scale practice. During daily, slow scale practice, students have nothing to focus on except the quality of the sound they are producing (including the accuracy of the pitch). No tricky rhythms, no melodies, no time changes or double stops or fermatas; just the student, the instrument, and the pitch.

Daily scale practice develops an irreplaceable coordination between the ear and the finger. That coordination invariably carries over into performance music, allowing students to play with amazing precision.

Metronome Skills

While seemingly unrelated to scale study, metronome skills can also be developed by regular scale practice. Especially for young students, learning to use a metronome is challenging. Even the simple task of synchronized clapping with the metronome can be a huge hurdle. Scale practice can be used as a key to developing this important musical skill. I assign students to set the metronome to 60 beats per minute during their scale practice, and to then play their scales at 2 clicks per note. This familiarizes students with the feel of a metronome clicking; more importantly, it helps them establish an accurate perception of the length of a beat. Practicing scales to the simple double-click of the metronome significantly improves rhythmic awareness in young students.

Incidentally, adding the metronome to scale practice can also have the reverse effect: it can help distracted students focus better on their scale practice.

Success Stories

Carter Brey is the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic--not a bad gig! Surprisingly, though, he didn’t start playing the cello until he was 12, much later than many professional musicians these days get started. When he started seriously studying the cello at age 16, he says “I immediately started a regimen of scales, arpeggios, and open string exercises and practiced for hours every day.” Obviously, much more than just scales went into making such a renowned and brilliant musician, but scales and technical exercises were an essential part of the foundation that he built his musical career on. Brey’s story has been an important part of my inspiration to teach scales to my students.

One of my current students has made remarkable strides in cello performance, largely because of scale mastery. A very bright teenager, she came to the cello several years ago without a real background in music. Because her family also had very little musical training, she got little or no feedback during her practice. Developing basic musical skills was a challenging undertaking for her.

To help her develop a sense of pitch, I put her on a steady diet of scales. She would spend hours and hours each week practicing scales. At her lessons, we spent most of the time reviewing scales, making sure that each note of each scale was perfectly in tune. During the process, I felt almost guilty for keeping her on the same scale for months a time. After nearly a year of intense focus, I was delighted to see a steady, noticeable upward trend in her ability to recognize and correct intonation problems.

Once she learned through scales to recognize and produce pitch with precision, her musical skills began developing rapidly. She recently won an audition to a prestigious youth orchestra in the area, and loves playing the cello. I believe that much of her success as a young cellist has come because of her willingness to put in the hard, slow, repetitive work of learning, practicing, and mastering scales.

It's Worth it!

The next time you say “scales” and your student rolls her eyes at you, just remember that scales can be some of the most valuable musical lessons she will ever learn. So many of the skills that an excellent musician needs--intonation, tone, in-depth knowledge of the structure of music--can be developed thoroughly and simply through the regular study and mastery of scales. It takes my students anywhere from 2-4 years to thoroughly master all of the major and minor scales, and those years are full of incredible progress and growth. Teaching students to learn and master scales is absolutely worth every bit of time and effort that it takes!

When was the last time you had a student play a scale in a lesson?

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© 2015 Gregory Marsh


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