By Bryan Emmon Hall
String teachers know the value of scale practice in longitudinal development, but often struggle to instill this value in our students. We all desire to ingrain the habit of consistent scale practice beyond lesson time, but to impart a love for practicing scales feels impossible at times. It is akin to asking our children to swallow a big vitamin—we know it’s healthy, but it still seems a little like torture.
I’ve found the solution lies not in my best pre-game football speech or experiential story about how scales changed my life. The solution is even simpler—I explain function using the violin.
The craziest thing is that students love learning about the theory behind scales and technique, when using their violin to see musical language and its syntax in their mind’s eye. I discovered this phenomenon early on when using scales and violin theory lessons as punishments for students not practicing. I began noticing that my students preferred these “punishment” lessons.
Ultimately, repertoire builds technique, but no one objects to making the technique come easier and repertoire more beautiful. Often, I hear students and colleagues complain equally about the struggle of applying their scale practice and theory class to their repertoire. Simple connections between technical skills, repertoire, and “modern culture” can serve as guideposts in an experientially based retention. For example, the fifth that outlines a certain passage is the same fifth that tunes your violin, and the same fifth that starts the main theme of Star Wars. Voilà.
Another example: This augmented second is in the harmonic minor scales we just played; it is equal to three half steps; it is an enharmonic equivalent of a minor third; it is all over the movie Aladdin and the beginning melody of Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate. Let’s make the half steps really close and the augmented second really wide to see if it sounds a little sassier.
This connection leads easily into a lesson about Pythagorean Intonation’s properties of wide whole steps and narrow half steps. This teaching style also stimulates deep learning, different from surface learning.
Independence is the final goal of all pedagogy. This means teachers must always discuss theory and function. This does not require a full Roman-numeral analysis, but the occasional discussion of key areas, lead-sheet style. For example, ask a student to identify the key areas in the development section of the first movement of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and play the corresponding arpeggios the following week. Is it odd that the second theme in the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto is in D-flat major? I guess that means we need to practice D-flat major this week.
It all comes down to establishing pedagogical goals to help students connect scale practice and theory to repertoire and musicality. The following have guided me throughout my career:
1. Get around the whole circle.
Yes, D major, A major, A minor, G major, G minor, D minor, and maybe E major define the home keys of most solo repertoire for the violin. However, music modulates and thus so should our scale routines.
2. Teach more than one scale at a time no matter the level of the student.
If thorough mastery of the “fingerboard matrix” is the goal, develop chromatic understanding early. Use the popular Mississippi Stop-Stop rhythm (four sixteenth notes and two eighth notes) after calling out each note of a scale. This allows students to think through each note before they play. Effective sequencing defines effective curriculum and causes complete understanding. Limit students to all sharp major scales, then switch to all sharp flat scales, and finally teach minor scales.
3. Demand immediate mastery and memory of fingerings in one-octave, two-octave, and three-octave scales.
Functional understanding of scales is ancillary to pedagogical loyalty. In this way the fingering system ultimately does not matter. Any concept is fine as long as it is clear to the student. A pedagogical theory I frequently hear is that all scales should not have one fingering. However, a clear and easy pedagogical concept frees the mind to conceive the correct notes one is playing. If the fingering system makes sense to the student, then the scales come easier. There is no need to create a religion over a particular scale fingering or ideal.
4. Students must talk their way through each scale by naming key signatures, shifts’ relative relationships, and parallel relationships.
For the last couple of years I have taught all scales free of any scale book. For three octaves I allow the student to look for the first month or so, and then I take it away. Two-octave scales (except G) start on one, to help teach positions. Students play one-octave scales easily with the talk-and-play system. Students memorize three-octave scales easily when they know why they are using the specific fingering.
5. Play melodic, harmonic, and natural minor.
All types of scales show up in our pieces. Once the student understands what pitches are altered and where the half steps lie, then practicing all of them becomes easier. I have included a guide to the more effective “scooting fingers” in the top octave of three-octave scales in Ex. I–IV below. I’ve also included another simple system of three-octave scales for reference.