Scales and Music

Posted by | April 01, 2016 | Education, News | No Comments

An article (published in JESTA magazine for ESTA in the autumn of 2015) on the importance of scales as part of instrumental education. It’s not all terrible, boring work! Here is why.

Scales and Music


We have all heard, I am sure: “I hate scales”, or “I cannot do scales”, or “Scales are boring”.

What I try to do in my teaching is to eliminate from my students’ minds the negative thoughts associated with scales. Chief among these is probably the feeling that scales are only there as part of exams, whether ABRSM or other boards. We live in an age of ever increasing pressure on children. Children feel the pressure of tests and exams in all aspects of their lives. Parents often reinforce the pressure as they are so keen for their children to succeed. Schools and music departments are not exempt from this stimulus: they need positive statistics in the form of good exam results in order to shine over competitors. While understandable, these attitudes are wildly counterproductive; we all know that learning under pressure can be unhealthy and is often not very effective. The unhealthiness is usually evident quite quickly, the result being disaffected or stressed out students. Sometimes it takes longer to manifest itself, and is more insidious and disappointing. Some students appear to respond well to pressure, meeting every challenge that the exam system can throw at them. But how often does it happen that they do their final exam, with brilliant results, and then never pick up the instrument again after leaving school?

The teacher’s responsibility is to minimise the pressure and maximise the interest: or rather minimise the pressure by maximising the interest. Then you may be creating a musician for life.  I have always held scales to be incredibly important to practise, and I teach them to all students whether they are preparing for exams or not. I enlist all the help I can in the form of anecdotes and examples to persuade my students of their value. Wonderful players and teachers over the years have stressed how crucial scales are. One of the first things my boyhood teacher, Warren Jacobs, who studied in Russia, said to me was: “|Practise your pieces and they will improve, practise your scales and everything will improve”. This has stuck with me, and has inspired me to convince my students to do the same. When I need back up, I show them the clip of Itzhak Perlman talking about playing to Jascha Heifetz when he was a boy. Heifetz was far less impressed with the young Perlman’s Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole than with his ability to knock out any scale Heifetz demanded of him. Perlman thanks his own Israeli teacher who had studied in Russia, was an admirer of Heifetz, and a similar stickler for scales.

Why are scales so important? The answer is, of course, that almost all tonal music is made up of phrases which are bits of scales or arpeggios. The great cellist, Paul Tortelier, put it much more eloquently in one of his masterclasses. He quoted Shakespeare’s Twelth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on”. Tortelier took it further: “If music be the food of love, then scales are the food of music”. My teacher was right. Practise your scales to nourish your music. These are the messages and stories I use, first to capture my students’ interest, then to convince them to work on their scales.

If students really do feel that they cannot do scales, I have to prove to them that they can. In whatever piece they are working on, I will ask them questions: I will get them to identify the bits of scales and arpeggios which make up the music. The results of this are dramatic: the students realise they can play their scales and arpeggios after all, and they also see for themselves how much of the music they are playing perfectly happily is made up of bits of things they have convinced themselves they cannot play. Another benefit is that a student can start to develop a more analytically musical brain. I encourage them to identify how scales and chords relate to each other. Harmonic progressions become much more familiar, and the student is happy when the music flows from one phrase to another with the changing harmony.


This also helps hugely with sight-reading, another word which raises blood pressure of students and teachers alike. If a student can identify scales and arpeggios quickly, then they are seeing new music in bigger units. I show my students that this method works all the way to the very top level:

“What chord is that?” Dominant 7th in D – correct!

“What scale is that?” D major – correct!

“What arpeggio is that?” Another Dominant 7th in D major – correct!

“What scale is that?” D minor – correct!

They are now ready to sight-read the first page of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.


Once convinced of the importance of scale practice, and that they have actually been playing bits of scales and arpeggios since the very start of their musical lives, they can usually be persuaded to use scales more and also to tackle challenging studies to improve their technique.

I use a mixture of different scale systems. My favourites are those of Ivan Galamian and Carl Flesch. Galamian’s three-octave scales start and finish with a turn. This helps to give a strong sense of pulse, as they work slowly in pairs of crotchets and then in groups of 4 quavers, 6 triplet quavers, 8 semi-quavers, 12 triplet semi-quavers and finally 24 demi-semi-quavers. Mathematicians find these particularly satisfying as the patterns fit every time with the bow, thanks to the addition of the turns. Flesch’s weighty tome of a scale system can seem rather imposing as it contains pages and pages of scales in every key, including all the double stops. What I find particularly helpful are his groups of arpeggios. Each key contains the major, minor, submediant, subdominant, subdominant minor, diminished and dominant sevenths.  Once a student is used to the pattern, each key can be explored with an increasing feeling of familiarity. I tend to teach all these scales aurally, so that the student listens to the musical quality rather than having to read the notes. I show them the printed music only after they have done the exercise. It is reassuring for them to see that they have already achieved what they would find intimidating if they saw it first on the page.

Scale exercises can of course be used for specific tasks such as improving a type of bow stroke or a hand shape. I always encourage the student to focus on just that one aspect, and not to mind too much if other aspects are less than perfect. What I do insist on though is that the playing should never be boring. Scales and studies are still music, and we must practise the technique so that it sounds attractive rather than merely correct.

I remember as a student warming up in a practice room at the Royal Academy of Music. I was extremely nervous as I was about to perform a Brahms Sonata for a pianist auditioning for the accompaniment course there. Next door to me was another violinist, absolutely nailing a Rode Caprice. It was incredibly fast, and incredibly impressive, and it was not doing my self-esteem much good. Suddenly there was a huge bang as a door was violently thrown open, a moment of silence, and then the enormous voice of a lady (who I later found out to be the late and very great Lydia Mordkovic) screaming: “Studies can be musical too”.

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