A Better Way With Scales

2011Symposium_1_2Who among us hasn’t slaved over practicing scales to prepare for an audition or private lesson? Chances are also good that we have demanded that our own students practice scales, often in the same spirit as a parent makes a child eat broccoli or brussel sprouts. “They’re good for you” we tell them. In the case of scales, there’s no denying the value of having a solid foundation of scales, but simply playing them without specific reason or goals does not help as much as we might think. Scales should be practiced with a goal in mind, and customized for the particular needs of each student. For example, the infamous Hanon studies for piano are designed to strengthen the typically weak fourth and fifth fingers in each hand. Playing the first variation, the one with the mordent played with 4 and 5, hones in on that common problem. A student who doesn’t know what they are trying to accomplish with those exercises may overlook or even avoid the troublesome irregularities created by imprecise fourth and fifth fingers, and simply repeat flawed performances of them to fulfill the requirement of their teacher.

On woodwind instruments, certain transitions from one note to another can be problematic. For example, on the clarinet, players typically have trouble evenly playing through the “throat tones” because the index finger of the left hand is misused. The wrist should be bent slightly in  and the index finger should remain in contact with both the Ab and A keys, even when they are not being depressed. Doing a chromatic scale of only seven tones, from first line e to third line b-flat on the treble clef, causes the student play through three notes where those keys are involved, and four notes below them where those keys are not depressed but must remain contacted by the index finger. Practicing just this portion of the chromatic scale focuses the student on the specific problem of properly using the left hand index finger, and prevents the student from overlooking the issue by considering it as a small blemish in the overall chromatic scale.

The same strategy should be applied to vocal students as well. Practicing scale fragments around vocal breaks

C major scale with fingering

C major scale with fingering

helps develop an even tone throughout the entire vocal range. Because vowel formation is so critical to vocal sound, these scale fragments should be practiced with a variety of vowels and vowel combinations until the singer can maintain a characteristic and consistent tone throughout the entire fragment on any vowel. For both instrumentalists and singers, scale exercises that include melodic skips must also be used. Melodic skips, particularly larger ones, present challenges for all musicians. Many students practice scales in thirds, where the pattern of diatonic ascending third followed by a diatonic descending second is repeated for the range of the scale, usually one or two octaves. For the instrumentalist, this presents fingering patterns not encountered in standard scales, and introduces some challenging thirds that need focused attention.

For the singer, singing in thirds helps develop the ability to navigate larger changes in the vocal folds without impeding the consistency of the tone. Carrying these benefits of scales in thirds forward, scales in fourths and fifths are more challenging, but just as beneficial. They should be practiced slowly so that no unwanted tension emerges in producing the larger interval while keeping the tone consistent. The pattern for a scale in fourths would be a diatonic ascending fourth followed by a a descending diatonic third. The pattern for a scale in fifths would be a diatonic ascending fifth followed by a descending diatonic fourth. In each case, the teacher must explain to the student exactly what is to be accomplished by practicing the particular scale pattern assigned. As we have seen, at times technique will be the goal, while at other times, consistency of sound or tone will be sought. When direction is given when scales are assigned, the scales will start to become like food that is not only good for you, but enjoyable too.

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