Scales, they don't have to be boring!
I know, you've all gone yuck the moment you read the title. Well, most of you did. Believe it or not there are people out there that love scales. They enjoy the order and patterns within the scales which is wonderful if you have the kind of brain that enjoys and feels rewarded from repeating these patterns over and over again. Many of us though don't find them rewarding and therefore find them harder to learn.
Now, time to tell the truth. Do you really find them difficult to learn or do you actually avoid practising them, especially the more difficult ones? I have taught the oboe for many years now and there are a few people out there that genuinely find scales difficult to learn but mostly it is because students have avoided practising them. Students always say they have practised them when they haven't or they have just played through a few without much thought. This means they don't remember them immediately so decide they are too hard and then do yet more scale avoidance.
Now, I bet you are all thinking, you are a professional oboist I bet you love scales and found them easy. The answer to that is no, I found them very difficult to learn indeed. My mum was a music teacher so I had a huge amount of help trying to learn them and tried many different ways but it took me years to get them learned. Yes, I really mean years! I was at music college when they finally started to settle in my brain and make sense. Now I found out a few years ago that I am actually dyslexic, not drastically, but certain things I do find difficult to learn and process. All this though does help me understand how frustrating scales can be.
I am often asked "Why do we have to learn scales?"
Well here you go.....
What is written on your music that you have to check before you play? The time signature and the KEY SIGNATURE. Every piece of music you play is based on a key and that key is a scale you can play. If you can play the scale the chances are some of the technical issues in the piece will become easier. Pieces of course don't stay in one key they often wander through a variety so the better you are at your scales the easier you will find your pieces and playing in all the different keys your pieces require. Your brain won't be put off by the sharps and the flats as your knowledge of scales will help your brain process the information and understand where the music is going and how it is moving through different keys. This may be all quite subconscious, it certainly is with me.
Practising scales will help your technique. They help you focus on strength of fingers and neatness of getting from one note to another without added complications of long pieces. If you can get your technique really good in a scale that will transfer to your pieces and anything based around those notes you will find easier.
Basically they are hugely important to your playing, to your technique and to your musical understanding. When you start the oboe it isn't often too long before you start playing your first scales, F major, G major and D minor. After you have taken grade 1 what do you all do, you all stop practising them! This means you end up with more scales to learn for grade 2 as you have to relearn the ones you have previously done. Once you've learned a scale please keep revising it, play and keep it fresh in your mind.
How to practise scales.
Well, there are many ways and they don't all have to be boring.
Many of you pick up a scale book read the scale as you play it then close the book and because you didn't remember it straight away decide its hard and avoid working on it until your teacher starts having a mini fit in the lessons a couple of weeks before your exams.
How about trying different ways....
1. Play the scale from the book, it's a perfectly good idea but if we aren't really thinking about the fact we need to memorise it you won't start to remember it. So, play it through so you understand how it sounds, then turn away and see if you can say out loud what notes you just played going up. If you manage it try and play the scale going up. Then see if you can say out loud the names of the names of the notes coming down, if you can try and play if downwards. Then try and say the notes up and down then play it up and down.
HINT Always think of the names of the notes in your head as you play your scale.
2. Don't think that because for the exam you have to play the scale either slurred or tongued and all notes the same length you have to always practice them in that way. Why not try working on them in different rhythms? It means you are still working on the notes and finger technique but you are varying the scale to keep yourself interested and you are less likely to switch off from what you are doing.
3. To help you learn the notes and build up good finger technique don't think you have to always play the whole scale all the way through every time. Why not gradually build it up. Follow the idea written below then continue it until you have worked through the whole scale.
This idea will really help you gain good control over any parts of the scale that are technically difficult. If it goes wrong keep working on the section of notes you are doing, slowly at first to work out why it goes wrong then try and increase the speed. Keep gradually building it up until you have the whole scale under your fingers. Keep thinking about what the name of the scale is you are playing, this may seem obvious but often students can play the scale once they have started it but the name of the scale doesn't mean anything to them and it takes quite a while to work it out so do keep telling yourself the name of the scale you are practising.
4. Sometimes the problem isn't that you don't know the notes and isn't that you aren't technically good enough to play them, sometimes it's all down to concentration. If I hear a student play nearly the right scale but it has all sorts of hesitations in and maybe the occasional wrong note I get them to play it again to me but this time with their eyes closed. Nearly every time I get a student to do this the scale is instantly better and they always look quite amazed. Closing your eyes takes away any visual distractions so your whole focus goes on he scale and it is often amazing what a difference it makes. Give it a try, go on, go and play a scale with your eyes closed.
5. Make up a little 8 bar piece based on the notes of your scale. This gets you thinking about what notes are in it and what accidentals are required but because you aren't playing the actual scale it changes your focus slightly. Plus, if you can work out what notes can be used in the piece that you make up you really, hopefully might be able to play them as a scale when the notes just go up and down in step.
6. Try a book called Keys to Success. These are books with little duets but can be played as little solos and each piece is based on a scale. It even tells you the name of the scale for each piece. You could play a tune which uses all the notes from your scale and then try and play the scale afterwards. You can also use these books to play duets with your friends so why not help each other learn scales and have some fun at the same time!
7. For my early grade students instead of thinking about key signatures I get them to remember the 'Special notes'. These Special Notes are the accidentals so the special note in F major is Bb. This means that if they know a scale has a special note every other note is a normal unsharpened or unflattened note and just helps them to understand them early on.
8. A way to really help you think of the names of the notes that you are playing while you are playing them is to play a scale of, for example, F Major but every time you get to an A, finger the note but do not blow. This means your fingers are playing the scale as normal but you just don't blow everything you get to an A. As well as helping you think of the names of the notes while playing the scale it also gives you a different focus within the scale and gets you to think about the scale in a totally different way.
9. Once you know the notes why not try different articulations to make practicing the scales more interesting. This will keep the scale fresh and give you a totally new focus so you won't get bored. Try these different articulation patterns and any others you think of. The first 3 are all the same pattern but I have shown how they work with 1 octave, a 12th and 2 octaves.
The main things that will help though are:
Thinking of the names of the notes as you play.
Really thinking about the name of the scale you are playing
Not avoiding them!
I hope some of these ideas help you with your scale practice. Let me know what helps you as it's always good to get different ideas for learning scales. The main thing is to not avoid them. Really keep them going, warm up with some scales, use them to practice dynamic control, tone quality, breath control. They really are very useful for very many things. I hope this also answers your questions of why we play them.
Now, go on, go and get your oboe out and try some of the ideas above!
The music clip for this blog is the wonderfully expressive playing of Francois Leleux performing the Cimarosa Oboe Concerto.