Why I’d Spend a Lot More Time Practicing Scales If I Could Do It All Over Again

Like every good student, I dutifully (though grudgingly) practiced my scales from an early age.

Of course, once I was old enough to practice unsupervised, I happily avoided scales as often as I could get away with it. Like taking my vitamins, it was something that I knew would be good for me, but I wasn’t sure exactly why.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s, that the lights went on, and I discovered why I should have been practicing scales all along.

So why are scales and etudes worth our time?

Wow…

One summer many years ago, I spent a few weeks at a chamber music workshop where cellist Natalia Gutman was one of the coaches.

She held a master class for the cellists one day, and at one point did something that made all of us simply smile and shake our heads in admiration.

What was it?

She played a scale.

Up. Down. Arpeggios. One note to a bow. Eight. Sixteen. I think she even played the whole darn scale (up and down) in one bow.

Anyone can play a scale. But to play it with the kind of ease and effortlessness she demonstrated, with such precise yet organic and fluid bow distribution, control, evenness, smoothness, not to mention sparkling pure sound, clean shifts and intonation…sigh…

It left us speechless.

Scales may be the most basic sequence of sounds that musicians play, but observing a great artist’s mastery of the fundamentals was truly something to behold.

It dawned on me that sure, maybe I could whip off a mean Paganini Caprice on occasion, but I couldn’t come close to that kind of execution in a scale. As much as I wanted to dismiss the importance of scales at that moment, I finally realized why scales were so important and valuable.

Wherefore scales?

It dawned on me that scales aren’t just about putting in the time. They are a testing ground. An ideal laboratory or controlled environment for developing the fundamental building blocks of our technique. Smooth shifts. Bow speed, contact point, distribution. Quality and concept of sound. And much, much more.

It’s an opportunity to strip away the dozens of other variables we would otherwise encounter in a piece of music, and focus on mastering just one aspect of our technique in isolation. Then adding in the others, one at a time, to see how that changes things. So that we can tweak and experiment with the little tiny details and truly master the fundamentals.

Sort of like how some folks nowadays recommend teaching kids how to ride a bike by taking the pedals off the bicycle, so they can work on developing balance first. Then, when they’ve gotten the balancing part figured out, putting the pedals back on so they can work on maintaining balance while pedaling.

Whether it’s experimenting with finger pressure, point of contact, or how much bow hair to use, it’s less about playing the scale perfectly, and more about exploration, hypothesis testing, and building up a toolbox of fundamental skills that we can then apply to whatever unique combination of demands we might encounter in our repertoire.

Are fundamentals boring? At first glance maybe, but is it possible to be truly great without a solid grasp of the fundamentals?

The “Big Fundamental”

Case in point, Tim Duncan is often referred to as one of the most “boring” players in the NBA. But with five championships, 14 All-Star appearances, multiple MVP awards, and more, he is arguably one of the greatest players of all time.

Nicknamed the “Big Fundamental” by Shaquille O’Neal, he is also widely regarded as being one of the most fundamentally sound players in the league – a defining characteristic of his game that many credit for his enviable and continued success over the span of a 17-year career.

Like the saying “heaven is in the details,” it’s the little things that don’t show up on the highlight reel, but add up over the course of a game, season, and playoff series, that are often the difference between winning and losing.

The egg test

Whenever my parents would go to a new Japanese restaurant, my mom would always order an egg dish – typically the tamagoyaki or tamago sushi.

She said that this was the test of a good chef, and you could often tell if it was a top-notch restaurant or not based on this one dish.

Sweet eggs always tasted a bit funky to me, so I had to take her word for it, but it seems that this is a real thing – not just something my mom made up.

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has been said to test chefs with the “egg test” as well, noting that many chefs will be able to prepare fancy dishes with exotic ingredients at a high level, but be tripped up by a simple egg if they have neglected the fundamentals,

There’s also this moving scene in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where an apprentice recounts spending months trying to cook eggs to the satisfaction of the master. How it took him perhaps 200-plus attempts to get it just right.

And here’s The Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, describing one of his keys to audition preparation – practicing the fundamentals.

Take action

So…can you pass the egg test on your instrument? Or the scale test, as it were?

What would it take to pass with flying colors?

The one-sentence summary

“What people don’t realize is that professionals are sensational because of the fundamentals.” ~12-time MLB All-Star, 1995 MVP, and 1990 World Series Champion shortstop Barry Larkin

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Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

35 Responses

  1. This is great information to impart to my piano students. But I’d like even more information. How do we make scales less boring for the young student (or even more — for the teenage student!) Should we have them play scales in different moods and speeds? Are there other ideas out there. Thanks for the post. It’s a great reminder for all of us about the importance of a good foundation.

  2. Extremely well articulated, Noa. The scale is the most utilitarian of all-in-one practice tools, as I have written and often told students. Mostly, they seem unconvinced, offering only a blank stare.

    When you come to accept this gospel of scales, it signals that you have made an important transition as a musician. You have finally embraced that practicing is about process, as much as it is about musical content. Pieces and etudes can become extraneous distractions to the work at hand.

    Another way to say it, think of practice in its Eastern sense as a state of being. Release the Western implication that it is a verb.

    Scales are a perfect fit for this Zen of practice. They can create a spacious sense around your daily work. Scales offer you the promise of pure, high quality practice. This, in turn, enables you to truly master the fundamentals with a higher sense of ease, clarity and purpose.

  3. Great article, much agreed. To make scales practice musical and interesting for oneself is also a great practice of controlling one’s inner state when practicing.

  4. Nice!! Good article and it express what my teacher recommends me every single session: scales every day, for warming up and put the things in their way!!

  5. Scales are the foundational building blocks of melody, and serve as a great template through which to examine and improve upon our musical abilities. I also think they must be approached not only from a technical/mechanical point of view (what the fingers might, or might not be doing, for example), but also, from an expressive/artistic point of view. In short, they must be made into music (no matter how seemingly mundane a particular pattern may seem).

    As an improvising musician (jazz saxophonist), I stopped practicing scales about 25 years ago, after I felt that I had “mastered” them (and had the unfounded concern that my improvisations were going to sound like I was running a bunch of scales all the time). About 10 years ago I returned to daily practice of scales. Not only did this allow me to address and clean up certain elusive technical challenges I was dealing with on my instrument, but it also gave me the opportunity to go deeply into finding even more music within the scales themselves. I have since come up with seemingly endless new ways to “practice scales”, which as only broadened my melodic choices as an improviser.

    I always advise my students to avoid ruts with the patterns they choose when practicing a scale. While it’s useful to practice a very simple, easily accessed scale pattern (say, for example, running the scale in eight notes up and down an octave from each degree) in order to free your thinking enough to deal with certain mechanical components of your playing, it is equally important to find and implement as many variations of any scale as you can. Every musician needs to think like an improviser or composer in this respect: Permutations, inversions, new articulations, rhythmic and metric variety, and more. Make it all sound fresh. Make it all sound like music. Make it sound like you.

    Finally, I’ve encountered many students who practice scales regularly, but do so in a very mechanical way. In my experience this causes as many problems as it solves, as the students tend to access their “motor/mechanical” brain far more than their “auditory” part (this is something that can, unfortunately, lead to serious problems for some, like focal dystonia or general lack of coordination while playing.) As always, thanks for yet another great, immediately practical article!

  6. In his book “A Manual of Flute Instruction,” pp.55-57, Carmine Coppola (father of Francis Ford …), then principal flutist with the Detroit Symphony, recounts his audition with Maestro Arturo Toscanini for the same job at the NBC Symphony. They spoke Italian; this is Coppola’s translation: “The Maestro continued: “Please play for me anything you like.” He paused a second. “Even a scale in C will do. Did you know, the quiet playing of a scale in C will give the insight of many important things — tone, control, smoothness, intonation –almost anything. Yes? —No? A C-Major scale — please.””

    1. My college orchestra conductor at UCLA, the late Mehli Metha (like me, a violinist) asked me to audition much in the same way: “Play a two octave scale in first position.” It’s considered is quite an “elementary” task. It was all he needed to know in a twenty second audition.

  7. Great article. And love Bill Alpert’s Zen approach above – think of practice in its Eastern sense, as a state of being. Totally agree, but students take more convincing!

  8. I have slacked off on scales since my teacher stopped assigning them for my lessons. This article is pretty convicting. I need to pull out my Gleason book soon and make it a habit to play scales!! Thank you.

  9. I think one of the most important things you said in this article was that fundamental practice is important to “…focus on mastering just one aspect of our technique in isolation.” I am amazed at how many students come to me for a first lesson, and upon my asking, tell me that their fundamental practice consists of “uh, well, I just play a couple of scales” or something similar. I think it’s so important to use our fundamental practice to focus on ONE aspect of our technique at a time, bringing each one into consciousness so that we make sure we are cementing it into our subconscious correctly. Thank you for mentioning that concept in this post.

  10. I was told all of the above my whole student life, and practised scales diligently for years… and it made me miserable, not because I didn’t believe in them, but because I had no idea why I was really working on them in that way. Perfection to what end?

    “An ideal laboratory or controlled environment for developing the fundamental building blocks of our technique” and “an opportunity to strip away the dozens of other variables we would otherwise encounter in a piece of music” is, in my opinion, exactly how we SHOULDN’T be learning music!!

    I think it’s important to know scales and be able to play them, but this relentless effort spent on perfecting them is absurd! Every single student I’ve taken on who has had already been learning has always answered ‘no’ to the following questions:
    1) Do you play them starting and ending on different notes?
    2) Do you fiddle with them and create melodies from them?
    3) Do you insert chromatic notes to see what happens when you ‘pad’ them out?

    Horowitz said in an interview that piano playing has become standardised and that no one is an individualist. He was being extreme but I think he was right. We’ve sacrificed creativity and finding our voice through music for technical perfection and, quite frankly, it’s boring.
    AND, technique doesn’t have to be worked on independently of the music – we all need to be a little more patient, and a little less demanding on ourselves (as players) and others (as teachers).
    Technique is something that we can develop gradually over time, through the music we play, and by immersing ourselves in the world of music. Formal lessons are meaningless without hanging out with other musicians, playing socially, observing, listening etc.

    Creativity is not exclusively for jazz musicians, and it’s not just ‘a bit of fun’, (something I hear classical teachers say a lot!). It’s integral to making music and understanding composition. If we’re learning to be interpreters, then we need to know what it is we’re interpreting.
    Perfect scales don’t give us the answer.

    1. Nadine, while I agree with most of what you said, I believe you may have slightly misunderstood what Noa is trying to say. He’s not saying that perfect scales are the answer to achieving great music at all; rather, that scales are a breeding ground for ideas and experimentation, both physically and mentally. In fact, I don’t think what he is saying is much different from what you’re saying yourself.

      He says, “Whether it’s experimenting with finger pressure, point of contact, or how much bow hair to use, it’s less about playing the scale perfectly, and more about exploration, hypothesis testing, and building up a toolbox of fundamental skills that we can then apply to whatever unique combination of demands we might encounter in our repertoire.”

      That sounds a lot like what you said. If I’m not mistaken, we might not be in disagreement after all.

      1. Oliver, developing a set of tools (that great analogy of diverse technical skills), in and of itself, does not require creativity. It certainly requires a sense of exploration to discover (based on listening! 😉 ) what techniques and nuances are being used by the masters, but it does not require the creative process to be applied. A student’s expanded toolbox will clearly open up options for application of creativity, though. cheers

    2. I am a very basic musician. I play a lot of different instruments. Scales for me are primarily the mathematical ratios that make sound musical. An octave is a doubling of the frequency of oscillations causing perfect resonance. The harmonic series are all ratios. The major scale is the harmonic series as I understand it. Each scale degree has a relationship of tension and release to the tonal centre. Singing solfeggio and being able to hear scale degrees in chord progressions and melodies from practiced ear training is musical literacy to me. Because you can hear the resolution tones and the tonal centre.
      Practicing scales is familiarising yourself with this system of related frequencies and how they relate. Being able to reproduce them through your instrument.
      If I can jump to the 6th degree of A on my trumpet and then 5, 4 etc at will then I can sing do re mi through my instrument.
      All of this is fundamental to music IMO and is much more important than having an exquisite appreciation for tone and technique.
      This article doesn’t even mention any of this.
      Your mentioning of playful creative use of tonality is recommended by people who want to improvise and ear train. I am exploring some prescribed exercises towards this goal.

      This article doesn’t even touch on the real importance of scales for music.

  11. Dear Dr. Noa,

    I could not agree more with your article. Thank you to bring it up for the world. Recently I defended a thesis that everyone should use the chamber music concepts to play any kind of music, even if he or she play along. Your contribution about Natalia Gutaman was like a shine for me, because that is exactly what I meant and, therefore, it reinforces my assertion.
    The fundamentals. The old and good fundamentals….”Less is more” (Browning, 1855).

  12. Wow you just shattered my reality. During all my early years of learning the guitar I was arrogant enough to think I don’t need to follow the rules of other people and that I could do it all myself and still become great. That mindset served me well for a long time but at some point I started to realize that the lack of fundamentals was slowing my progress down. I resolved to go back and learn the fundamentals but I still sometimes don’t take my vitamins lol. It is a long road to filling in all the gaps but eventually I will have it all memorized, at least my fingers are already really fast 😉

  13. I’m sharing this with my singing students because it’s as relevant for us as it is for instrumentalists! It’s not enough to learn the words and music of a song. Our bodies are our instruments and infinitely adjustable. We must be ever curious and explore the potential for timbre, breath control, phrasing. This is the joy of making music! Thank you for this inspiring reminder to keep exploring.

  14. Excellent article and many interesting comments. When I got back into the piano after a forty year absence my teacher encouraged scales to help technique. She showed me ways to vary the practice and hopefully avoid boredom. Suddenly I found a perverse and unexpected pleasure in seeing how it helped my playing. I wish I had learnt them all those years ago.

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