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Posts tagged ‘scales’

Well I never! No scales or studies?!?

This article caught my attention when it came out and I bookmarked it…. I thought it was perfect for this week’s #MUS654 topic about studies and connecting material. Imagine being an established soloist and speaking out about something pedagogically controversial? I’m not sure if that was James Ehnes’ intention to be provocative or if he was just stating his own practice as a mater of fact opinion. I’ll let you decide!

The article is titled: “I never practise scales and studies from books” 

Let’s start with a couple of comments from two other very respected performing musicians.

Brannon Cho: He’s not saying that basic foundation exercise is never necessary; obviously when you’re still learning how to get around your instrument and learning about harmonic and melodic structures at a young age, it’s crucial. But once you’re past a point in your development as an instrumentalist and artist when you’ve mastered understanding of keys and intervals and intonation, it’s much more practical and effective to study directly from your repertoire

Nicholas G: The things he described (scales, arpeggios, chords) can certainly be taken way further than basic foundational exercises. Those 3 things are things I think are essentially impossible to master, I mean those 3 things basically encompass all of harmony. It definitely depends what you plan on using your fundamentals for, but at least coming from a improvisatory perspective, these are things even top professionals never stop working on because it takes a complete mastery of those things on your instrument to use them in real time. Just the actual magnitude of harmony is huge, so it’s a never ending process. I’m not saying one shouldn’t study from repertoire and recordings, but rather it’s ridiculous to dismiss scales, arpeggios, and chords as developmental exercises and as less useful than studying repertoire for a high level musician. I mean even looking at Bach violin partitas, it seems he was experimenting endlessly with different ways of voice leading through scales and arpeggios. It’s certainly not something he could have only learned through studying repertoire, because he was experimenting with harmony while writing… and Bach was an incredible instrumentalist himself! I guess it’s just a choice of how well rounded you want to be as a musician. My favorite musicians are personally great performers, composers, and improvisors… it seems like James Ehnes is coming really strongly from a purely performance standpoint. There’s just so much more you can do with scales, arpeggios, chords… harmony… than use it as a developmental exercise.

It is certainly a thought provoking article and those comments really present crystalised thoughts. I wonder what it and they stem in your thoughts and your experience?

I have pasted the article it into which allows group annotation – it lets you (and me, and anyone) comment on the document and see what other people say. It is an experiment for me with #MUS654 and I would love for people to join in the discussion right on the page…

If you have never used it, it is very easy. Please feel free to join in, you can make comments easily. The article is LINKED HERE:

Once you get to the page, here’s how easy it is to comment:


(screenshot from

Looking forward to hearing what you think! (if group annotation is not for you, you are always welcome to comment on this page)#MUS654

Making learning scales tactile and meaningful

Learning sinks in when we do it. That sounds basic, but so many people think it is something that is done to them – the teacher will teach me, that’s how I learn. Well, not really. The teacher presents, facilitates, encourages, fosters, but the learner learns. Only you can do it. Simple and very powerful when you own that. What does that have to do with scales? That is this week’s topic for #MUS654: Scales and the relationships of notes. If it is up to the student to be the active learner, ok, but how can the teacher do her part to guide and present opportunities for comprehension, understanding, context, and application?

How did you learn scales?

Every time I ask a class how they learned scales, someone says the teacher gave them a book and that was it. They just had to read the music in the book and get on with it. Oh, and they learned scales for an exam, no particular other reason.

Sometimes that can lead to leaving a musician with a stunted level of understanding on so many levels – basic theory, more complex harmony, contexts outside their own instrument. So what about that beginning learning? Scales are built on patterns, and they all are made out of the same musical alphabet. I like the idea of experiencing things in different ways – see it, speak about it, read about it, do it, build it, have it be tactile.. and all of those are possible with scales.

‘Playing’ with scales

A couple of years ago I found an app Read more

My scales story #MUS654

(2 min read) As a student I was a latecomers to seriously studying music, and as we know it takes a lot of practice to be excellent at any instrument (yes, voice is an instrument). As a first year undergraduate I had a great friend who gave me a present to help with my practising. It was a pink mini-Fender Amp that had a slot in the back for a 9v battery, an input and an output. I used it for years until it finally went to live with the other amps in the sky.  (Photo CC-BY by S.Su)


What was it for? Scales and intonation. That’s right, my little pink Fender amp was a drone machine for me and it would be hooked up to my digital tuner and blast out sine tones (like these) so I could have a solid, fixed reference pitch as I practiced. I used it religiously everyday – and I needed to! There was no quick fix for developing an inner ear or learning the placement of fingers on a fretless instrument. I quickly realised that as a cello player, I thought about notes, and scales, mainly in a melodic context. What I mean, is that I didn’t have that key harmonic reference in my head like another musician might. (Photo CC-BY-NC by Bill Selak)

The amp was a stepping stone for me. As I plugged away learning the patterns for my scales and solidifying the geography of the fingerboard it helped to keep me on track. The next step was to create that drone myself, with my voice. The magic of this (once you get over the fact that you are not supposed to sound like a diva holding a low G -or whatever note- for a minute or more) was that the combination of the voice and the cello notes interacted in a very physical way. I could FEEL the vibrations of the different intervals. So an octave really felt smooth as glass, whereas the major 7th had a sawtooth edge that produced very tangible harmonic beats. These were different from the more textured velour of a 3rd. It is a real challenge to hold a pitch steady when the interval is moving, and not to waver. Really, give it a go – even if you sing against that sine wave generator I linked to – play a note on it (turn it up so the volume matches your voice) and sing a scale. You’ll feel those intervals too.

It is a practice that taught me to tune in, literally, as well as to get into the mental space where I could really listen. Scales became more than rushing through the Galamian finger pattern of ‘stretch-stretch-squash-squash-squash’ (which is how to play a major scale on a violin/viola/cello staring on any note) and moved into a real tool for teaching me about relationships of notes and balance within my hand and the sound.

Do I still do it? Yes.

Do I make my students do it? Yes.

Do they think it’s silly? Yes, and I volunteer to sing the first drone – and we all laugh. It is very good to laugh. …and then to practise some more!

Don’t forget this week’s #MUS654 Hangout/Webinar happening on Wed. 30th September at 6pm BST. We’ll be talking about scales and the relationship of notes, and I look forward to welcoming Roozbeh Golpaygani روزبه گلپايگانى who will be sharing his knowledge of Persian music. You are more than welcome to join in the conversation in person or via Twitter.

Week 3 is here! #MUS654

This week in the open music course #MUS654 we think about ‘Scales and the relationships of notes’ – there is content to spark your thought and imagination and you are invited to join in with the various tasks. These are intended to get you thinking differently – beyond your own experience or practising habits, and to extend outward so we can all learn from each other.

You can find the Week 3 page HERE or you can navigate by hovering over the #MUS654 2015 tab above.

We will be having another webinar/hangout next Wednesday, 30th of September at 6pm BST and you are more than welcome to join in! The plan is to have people with different instrumental specialisms and from different traditions to talk about the topic of scales, notes, and how they relate to our music making and learning. If you missed last night’s webinar with Duane Padilla and Pete where we discussed melodies, you can catch up here:


I look forward to seeing you (or your posts!) in the week – as always, if you have any questions, observations, or suggestions, please get in touch. I am happy to reply and improve what is here.

All the best for the week ahead!


Photo CC-BY-BC-ND by Peter Witham