Practice Session, part 2: Scales & Technique

Scales and Technique

The second of the six parts of a practice session.

In the first blog post of this seven part series, I gave a general overview the elements of typical practice session:practice "drawers"

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

If we think of the practice session as a set of drawers, we start at the top and work our way down. Today, we will look in the second drawer: scales and technique exercises.

Opening the second drawer, we find lots of scale books, technique exercises, and things of that nature. This is minute 3-8 of our thirty minute practice session. In this part of the practice session, you will want to focus on short technical exercises. Ideally, you will choose exercises that strengthen your weaknesses and solve problems you are having in repertoire (element #4). When creating your plan for the practice session (element #1), try to pick exercises that will help you achieve your goals. These are a few of the books–and the scale cards–that I use during this portion of my practice:

scales and technique books for flute

scales and technique books for flute

Scales. There are many different kinds of scales– major, minor, chromatic, modes, whole tone, jazz, pentatonic, and so forth. Work on memorizing the scales. Check out the Scale Game I use with my students. Advanced players will also want to practice scales in thirds, octaves, full range, descending first (then ascending), and any other combination you can think of.

Intervals. Each instrument will have unique needs for interval practice, but we all benefit from working on difficult combinations of notes. I like to use an exercise of expanding intervals to increase flexibility. Lip slurs are great for brass players. All wind players can work on the harmonic/overtone series.

Articulations. Practice different kinds of accents, like marcato, staccato, legato. Work on the beginnings of notes. Don’t forget about articulations: single, double, and triple tonguing. Pianists  may use exercises to improve their repetition speed and pedaling. 

In a 30 minute practice session, you may want to spend about 5 minutes on scales and technical exercises. The technical exercises should be short. This will keep the brain entertained. Keep in mind the technical problems you have in your repertoire and pick scales and technical exercises that compliment that work. This is called “interleaving.”

Interleaving: That’s a cognitive science word, and it simply means mixing related but distinct material during study. –From How We Learn by Benedict Carey.

Choosing scales and technique exercises that are related to the repertoire you’re studying actually makes it easier. That’s really the whole point of scales and technical exercises anyway.

Longer exercises, or etudes, will be included in the next phase of practice. The two purposes of this phase of practice are

  1. strengthen skills needed in the solo repertoire
  2. prepare the body and mind for the longer, intense concentration needed for the longer pieces

Fingers flying, mind roaring, let’s move on to ETUDES.

Game for scales- major, minor, and chromatic

Scales can be mindlessly boring… or scales can be tolerable.

(If I said playing scales was the most exciting thing in the world, you would know I was lying and you wouldn’t read another word.)

Practicing scales is a bit like taking medicine- it doesn’t taste good, but the results are worth it.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you a game that you can play with scales. In no time you will have mastered all your major and minor scales plus the chromatic scale. Maybe you will find that playing scales this way is more pleasant than drinking cherry cough syrup.

We’re going to trick your brain into thinking that scales are fun. There’s a random element in the game that takes the pressure off of you to make decisions.

What you will need: 50 blank note cards, a marker, a large rubber band or binder clip.

Step 1: Make 12 cards, one for each of the major scales. Write in bold letters in the center of a note card C Major. Repeat with the other 11 major scales, the names of which you will find on the outside (red letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below. Make sure you write the name of the scale and word “Major” with a capital letter at the beginning. It’s a music theory thing.

Step 2: Make the minor scale cards. This is the tricky part because each minor scale has three versions: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Your first three cards will be “a minor, natural,” “a minor, harmonic,” and “a minor, melodic.” Refer to the inside (green letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below for the other 11 names of the minor scales. Make sure you have three for each letter. Writing minor scales in all lowercase letters is also a music theory thing. When you are finished, you should have a total of 36 minor cards.

circle of fifths

Scales on the circle of fifths

Step 3: Take the remaining 2 scale cards and write CHROMATIC on them. You don’t have to write it in all caps. Be crazy and write it in all lowercase if it suits you. It’s not a music theory thing.

Now you have a stack of 50 note cards with the name of scales written on one side. You’ll want to keep them together using a large rubber band or binder clip. These pictures show the scale cards I made in 1993 with my teacher Tom Kennedy. I used these cards to learn scales for my college auditions, and I still use them today!

scales cards

50 scale cards

scale cards

scales on cards

Now that you have made your scale cards, you are ready to play the game!

You are going to create two piles of cards. One will be the “BRAVO” pile for all the scales you can play correctly the first time and the other pile will be the “deck.” Shuffle the cards and close your eyes while you pick three cards from the deck. Play the first scale. Did you play all the notes correctly with a beautiful tone and the correct fingering? If yes, place that scale card in the “BRAVO” pile. If it wasn’t perfect, place the scale card back in the deck with the others. Do the same thing with the two other scales. Your goal is to get all the cards into the “BRAVO” pile.

Tomorrow, pick three more cards from the deck, remembering that you might draw the ones you missed today. When all of the cards are in the “BRAVO” pile, re-shuffle the whole deck and work through them again. Perhaps this time you can get through the entire deck faster.

If you haven’t learned all of your major and minor scales yet, you can play this game with the ones you know. Totally confused about how to play scales? There are many good books to use for a reference. For flute, I recommend The Flute Scale Book and The Flutist’s Vade Mecum. Find a book for your instrument, or search online.

It’s best if you can play the scales from memory, but if you need to use the music for awhile, that’s OK. As you learn more scales, add them to the pile until you are using all 50.

When you’re ready for the next level of difficulty, try playing the scales with different articulation patterns (Articulation Game) and rhythms.

Scales are an important part of every musician’s technique. They are required in competitions and auditions. Learn them now; use them forever!

Happy practicing!