Having fun with scales

When I was learning the violin I used to think playing scales was really boring and I didn’t pay them much attention. My teacher didn’t explain to me why they were important and how they were the key to successful fingering patterns, versatility, tone production, accurate intonation and crucial for understanding, what I later understood to be, chord scale theory.

The seven notes of the major scale are the building blocks for both melody and harmony. They are the gateway to understanding western music. To have scales literally at your finger tips, and in your minds eye and ear, will generate confidence and flexibility along with the knowledge to support your understanding of musical structures.

With this in mind I’d like to offer some ways you can use scales that are fun and creative as well as developing your musicianship.

1. The slow approach
The unconscious mind learns through slow repetition. Us your scale practice to concentrate on tone with down strokes. Is each note clear and round? does it have a clean attack and a good sustain? As you slowly play each note say its name out loud so you learn the notes in the scale and their position on the fingerboard.

2. Tremolo
Play scales using tremolo. Play very slowly giving four beats to each note as you really listen to how even your strokes are. This is great for developing an even tremolo. Use a metronome to check your timing. If you have the Ranieri books you will find most of the major and relative minor scales there with some excellent harmonised accompaniments.

3. Ascending and Descending
It is as important if not more important to play scales descending as well as ascending. Why? Because we are used to our alphabet starting on A. Saying and playing your notes in reverse means that your site reading improves as feel as comfortable playing G F# E D C B A as A B C D E F# G.

BIG EXTRA TIP Practice saying your note alphabet A to G backwards G to A whenever you are at a loose end like sitting in a traffic queue or the dentists waiting room or even to get you to sleep at night. Start on any note to the octave above and back again. This is good brain gym.

4. Be creative with scales
As well as playing linear scales, mix up the note sequences into patterns. Here are a few to get you started then make up more of your own.

Up a third down a second e.g. in D major:
Ascending D F# E G F# A G B A C# B D C# E D
Descending D B C# A B G A F# G E F# D E C# D

As well as thinking using the notes of the scale you can also think of the notes purely as a pattern using the notes position in the scale. So the exercise above would be :
1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7 6 8 7 9 8
Once you have this pattern it becomes transferable to any scale. However when you apply the pattern don’t forget then to interpret the pattern back into the notes from each scale.

Here’s another pattern:

Ascending 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 4 5 6 7 5 6 7 8
Descending 8 7 6 8 7 6 5 7 6 5 4 6 5 4 3 5 4 3 2 4 3 2 1

In the key of C this would be

Ascending C D E C D E F D E F G E F G A F G A B G A B C
Descending C B A C B A G B A G F A G F E G F E D F E D C

5. Add Tempo and Rhythm variations
Once you have these patterns working well at slow tempos then increase the tempo and experiment with rhythm changes. For example with alternate dotted quarter notes and 8th notes (dotted crotchets and quavers)