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Top 5 ways to practice your scales

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

We all know that scales are an important part of our daily practice routine, but it could be hard to find joy or fulfillment in the mundane process of practicing scales. Consistency is key when it comes to practicing scales, but going through the motions day after day gets really monotonous really fast. Scales are by far the easiest way to practice technique and to learn the fingerboard. We will talk about 5 ways to customize your scales to tackle what you are focused on, but first let's dive into why we should bother practicing them at all.

The magic of scales is in the patterns. When you place your fingers in patterns on your fingerboard enough times, you eventually accumulate muscle memory. This is how string players are able to perform without frets. Our hands memorize the spacing and the patterns on the fingerboard the same way our hands memorize the letters and the spacing on a keyboard. To type this blog I have probably had to look at the keyboard every few seconds-but if I spent 8 hours a day typing on this keyboard I might not have to even glance at the letters on the keyboard at all. To become fluent on a stringed instrument you need thousands of hours of muscle memory with a variety of finger patterns so that you can play anything without having to think about it. Scales provide the perfect way to learn the most common finger patterns from the bottom of the fingerboard all the way up to the top of it.

I had some teachers in college who would say "scales are fun!" and at the time I thought they were crazy, but now that I'm a teacher myself I question whether they were telling the whole truth about their personal feelings. Let me be 100% honest-"fun" is not a word that I associate with scales. When I was a student, I was hot and cold with scales. I absolutely hated practicing them, and sometimes that disdain won out and I wouldn't be consistent. I was a senior when it hit me that I was tired of my teachers talking to me about intonation-I became determined to improve that aspect of my playing and that determination helped me find motivation to really be consistent. It wasn't that I suddenly thought scales were fun. They were still a tedious chore-but an incredibly valuable chore. The result of the chore is the fun part. Getting around the fingerboard with more ease and precision is the fun part.

Part of growing up is realizing that nothing improves by itself. I got by on talent for way too long before I learned that improvement comes with focus and determination. When I graduated college I got mad at myself because I wanted to be better than I was. I had taken grad school auditions and I really wanted to get full rides at the schools I applied to. I got into all the programs I auditioned for but I didn't get a lot of scholarship money. I was frustrated because I knew there were other people who were in my situation who were doing better than I was. This realization lit a fire under my butt and it helped me grow up a little at that time. I needed to be better-no excuses. I took a year off of school and tried again the following year. After a year of working extremely hard I got my full ride options, so I was happier but that dedication to making progress did not go away. I started to build better habits after I graduated from undergrad. Those habits stuck with me and they got better. Moral of the story-it's never too late to start building great habits. If you aren't practicing scales consistently, there is no better time to start than right now.

So how can you break the monotony of scales? That feeling of just going through the motions can really wear you down. I personally like the idea that we are "customizing" our scales. Kind of like customizing our car or getting something custom made just for us, thinking of it this way can make it feel more special. My scale routine has been customized, made to order just for me! We'll start out by customizing the key we are working in.

1. Focus on practicing the keys in your repertoire

Let's say you are working on Brahms Viola Sonata in Eb Major and Bach Suite no. 3 in C Major. Why not hit two birds with one stone and focus particularly on those keys for a few days? And after that focus on the different keys that occur within those pieces? Practicing scales particularly for your repertoire will add another layer of confidence in the intonation of those pieces.

The key to practicing scales for intonation is to turn that drone on. The drone is your friend-it will always be honest with you as it guides you through practice. When I am working my scales with specific repertoire in mind I like to customize my practice even further. I will break down my scales by octave. I don't just want to run through a 3-octave scale. I will practice each octave with multiple fingerings based on what positions I have to play the repertoire in. For the Brahms, I will practice Eb Major in first position first. Then I will practice that first octave in 3rd position, because that is where I'll start the piece. When you play the same music in another position, it is important to try to make it sound exactly the same. The tamber will be different, but the intonation should be exactly the same and you should even aim to create the same resonance. If the 3rd position version of the practice is not ringing or it sounds clunky, then you may be holding some tension or your bow placement/weight/distribution are not working for where you are playing. You have to balance your bow style based on where you are on the instrument. Playing in higher positions requires a completely different balance of bow style, so this exercise gives you an opportunity to find that balance. Before I practice multiple octaves in one go, I will also separate the second octave and break that down into a variety of fingerings as well. For this particular sonata I will also emphasize the highest octave starting on the A string because we go up there pretty frequently. The drone will be on for the entirety of this session regardless of which tempi you decide to practice.

2. Practice scales in rhythms

Do you want to improve your rhythm? The answer is yes, no matter what stage of musicianship you are in! Every aspect of musicianship is a lifelong journey-there is no end to how much improvement we can make as musicians. So let's "customize" our scales to practice rhythm. Just like your drone was your friend for the intonation portion of your practice, the metronome is your friend in the rhythm section. You can practice in a variety of tempi, but the metronome will always be on for this practice. There are an endless variety of rhythms you can use: standard rhythms, dotted rhythms, irregular rhythms, rhythmic patterns. You can also set the metronome to subdivisions but you have to make sure you can always clearly hear the metronome. Changing the bowing style adds an extra layer of complexity. There are a lot of times that we find our bow controlling the rhythm, when our pulse should be controlling the rhythm. Get better control of your rhythm and your bow by practicing different bowings/styles with your scales.

The following example shows some rhythms that you can use to practice your scales. You can also add different bowings to spice your scales up. The sky is the limit with variations of rhythms you can use, so get creative and practice some rhythms!

Another example-the Mendelssohn Scherzo has a very specific bow stroke, and it is in a challenging key area. We can customize our scale practice to tackle the rhythm & bow stroke while we are practicing the key areas we find in that excerpt. This excerpt only covers two octaves worth of notes, so I would customize this practice even further to only include 2 octaves of the scale I am practice for it and I would practice the scales in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions.

3. Practice scales for vibrato

Vibrato is one of those aspects of playing that is easy to overlook once you've got the hang of it. It is a tool we use for expression, it adds to our story telling abilities if we use it the right way. One common problem is consistency, and this is where scales come in handy. We should be conscious of our vibrato before the note starts, during the note, and after the note ends. What tends to happen is that the note starts, then the vibrato starts, and then the vibrato stops before the end of the note, creating vibrato gaps. When you are practicing scales in long tones try starting the vibrato before the first note you actually play. Start vibrating a full second before, just to exaggerate the exercise. As you are preparing to play the second note of the scale make sure you feel the motion of the vibrato continue through the end of the note you are playing and into the next note. It may feel unnatural at first and it may feel even more unnatural with specific fingers, so keep a high level of focus on maintaining a constant vibrato throughout the entire scale. Start out with just one octave, and try a scale in 3rd position so that your hand can be more comfortable. The most important part of this is the high level of focus because it is so easy for notes to slip right by us. When you are in your own practice room you have to work harder to stay accountable because nobody is watching to make sure you are doing it right. Every single note in this exercise should be vibrated. The vibrato should start before the first note, it should continue through the end of each note and into the next note.

I also encourage practicing some vibrato exercises in scales. The exercises that use rhythmic oscillations can be practiced through one or even two octave scales. These are very useful exercises for improving vibrato control.

4. Practice scales with a mirror

I have known so many teachers that recommend mirror practice, and it is for good reason! When you are working with a mirror, it is so much easier to see if you are playing with a straight bow and to see what your bow hold actually looks like. All you have to do is stand in front of a mirror and practice your scale with a high level of focus on how you want to improve your bow technique. If you want to play with a straight bow pay special attention not only to what it looks like, but also how it feels. What do you have to do with your arm to play with a straight bow at the tip? At the frog? In the middle? How do you keep it consistent while you are traveling from frog to tip? What motions do you have to perform to adjust the placement of the bow? This is your time for curiosity and discovery. Try this with different bow strokes, experiment with bow placement for different left hand positions. Check out your bow hold. Does it look natural as you play different bow strokes? Some people tend to have lower or higher elbows, or maybe a bent wrist. Are your fingers flexible as you play different bow strokes? Are they too stiff, or are they too floppy? The answers to these questions will be different for everybody, and what works for you may not necessarily work for somebody else. Your self awareness is important, because once you are aware you can decide what improvements to make.

5. Practice double stops

This is something I personally wish I did more of when I was younger. I remember once in studio class there was a new hot shot grad student who performed the Handel Halvorsen Passacaglia, and her technique was so solid that I was in complete awe. In my next lesson I asked my teacher "how did she do that so perfectly?" and her response was "Her teacher made her practice double stops in high school". At the time did that make me practice more double stops? Nope, it didn't! I was just hopeless that I could ever be so good.

Practicing double stops gives your left hand structure. If you have flying fingers my first recommendation is double stops, because placing more fingers down means you have less fingers available to fly! Seriously though, the act of playing double stops forces you to have good technique. Your arm has to be in the right place for good finger placement. If your fingers are too flat, or if your arm is at the wrong angle you will hit both strings with your fingers and the double stop won't sound. When you play multiple double stops in a row you have to keep your fingers close to the fingerboard or you won't place your fingers in time. When you play double stops you know when one of the notes is out of tune. It might take some time to differentiate the notes and figure out what needs to go where, but you will get faster if you stay consistent with your practice.

What makes double stops easier for me is breaking them down in terms of the top note and the bottom note. If you are playing a scale of double stops, you are essentially playing two scales: the top scale and the bottom scale. Practice each of these scales separately so that you really know what they sound like. Gradually put them together. You might start out by playing the bottom as a grace note into the top note so you hear each note before you try to blend them. You can also play them one at a time, bottom to top, and then put them together. The most important thing is that you know what each note sounds like before you try blending them together.

Double stops are great for form, strength, and dexterity. When I take a break from double stops I am always embarrassed when I randomly have to play some because the muscle memory evaporates so quickly. When I do practice them with consistency I find that my hand feels stronger and I play with greater ease overall.

The bottom line is that scales are always going to benefit you, and the more consistent you are with your practice the more benefit you will see over time. Practicing scales consistently in high school is not enough, practicing them consistently in college is not even enough. It is truly a lifetime commitment that we have to improving ourselves as musicians, and scales will always be a part of that. I hope this gave you some insight and ideas for your scale practice, and as always-happy practicing!


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