Scales and Arpeggios

 Scales are important.  Sounds simple, but students often don’t believe it.  Professionals work scales and arpeggios in their personal practice sessions, no matter what instrument they play.  If you want to test that theory, walk through a studio and find teachers who are practicing.  Even singers work scales into their warm-up routines, right alongside strings, winds, and pianists.  Here are a few reasons why all of us need to play scales and arpeggios on a regular basis.

They increase your dexterity around the instrument. 

    In other words, practicing your scales can make your fingers move faster.  We’ve discussed in our lessons how muscles are slow to learn, but how they also have memory.  As you practice playing up and down a scale or arpeggio, your fingers become accustomed to moving along that route correctly.  Gradually, you will get more confident about it, and you’ll start to play that scale at a quicker pace.  Several more tries down the road, and voila!  Your fingers are moving through the scale much faster than before.

They help extend your range.

    When we begin learning an instrument, we learn three or four notes.  Those notes are all very close together.  From there, we start adding notes, one lower, one higher, until we have a complete scale.  Once we have a scale, we keep adding notes, one lower, one higher, and now we can play another scale.  Are there notes in that second scale that we already learned in the first?  Sure.  We don’t learn a complete set of new notes when we learn a new scale, just one or two.  Over time, your range widens until you can play as low as your instrument will allow and as high as you are able.  To extend your range without using this method would be much more difficult and quite a bit more confusing. 

They reinforce your music reading skills.

    Every time you play a scale, you’re reading a set of notes in order.  The more you do it, the better you’ll be at connecting a written “D” with the correct fingering for “D” on your instrument.  Are there flats or sharps in the that scale?  So much the better - you’ll become great at spotting them ahead of time and knowing what to do right away.

    OK, so we get that scales are good for you.  But, with so much going on in your schedule, your practice time is precious.  You have exercises in your book to work on, a recital coming up, and your band director wants to hear one of your concert pieces next week.  Why, then, should you spend some of your limited practice time working on scales and arpeggios?  It’s not like you’re ever going to perform them for an audience.  Or are you?

    Look closely at some of your more difficult music.  Look for little groupings of notes that all go up or down.  Keep looking - yup, there’s one.  Know what it is?  You’re right, it’s a scale.  Now look for some arpeggios.  Find any?  Sure you did!  It’s likely that you’ll sometimes find scales or arpeggios that are incomplete, but there they are, hidden in your band music, printed all over your recital piece, making up the music you are going to perform.  In fact, scales and arpeggios show up in our music all the time!  How much easier would playingthis music be if we already knew how to play those scales, if we didn’t have to fumble around for those arpeggios?

    In every practice session, pick one or two scales.  Play through them slowly, then try to play them in scale pattern.  Play them slurred, play them articulated, play them with a mixture of the two.  How fast can you correctly play?  Practicing a scale and its arpeggio doesn’t have to take up 20-30 minutes, just as much time as it takes to play it correctly.  The next day, review the previous day’s scale, then start working on a new one.  Pretty soon, you’ll have all twelve major scales under your belt.  It’ll be pretty cool when you get a new piece of music in band and you’re the one in your section that can play through that tricky spot while everyone else struggles.  They’ll think it’s really hard - you’ll know it’s just a scale.