Embracing Scale Exercises and the Progress They Represent

Scales needn’t be a drag if you practice them in ways that simultaneously challenge you, build skills, and offer variety

By Louise Lee | From the August 2015 issue of Strings

The problem is practicing scales is an essential exercise in order to progress, but you find it so boring that getting motivated is a challenge. The solution is to find a way to make scales less tedious by integrating variety and focusing on the skills you’re building in the process of practicing.

Mention scales and many players will groan. But practicing scales and arpeggios is essential to maintaining and improving your playing.

“In Western music, all we play is based on scales or arpeggio,” says violinist, teacher, and author Barbara Barber. “They’re the building blocks of harmony and our technical development.”

Scales needn’t be a drag if you practice them in ways that simultaneously challenge you, build skills, and offer variety, says Barber, who has written a popular series of scale-study books, including Scales for Young Violinists, Scales for Young Violists, Scales for Advanced Violinists, and Scales for Advanced Violists. Barber recommends that students spend about 15 to 20 percent of their time in both lessons and practice on scale-based exercises.


Practicing scales builds left-hand skills, including speed, articulation, dexterity, and shifting abilities, while also serving as an opportunity to improve bow technique.

Additionally, scales improve note-reading skills, especially in the higher positions. Scales focus your ears and encourage a disciplined approach to learning.

1. Mix Things Up

Start with one-, two-, and three-octave scales in the most commonly seen foundation keys of C, D, A, G, and B-flat, and add A-flat, B, D-flat, E-flat, and E. Then you can also practice them in thirds, sixths, octaves, and harmonics and vary your rhythm, tempo, and bowings. Change the key every day or every week to make yourself play all over the fingerboard. To check your intonation, have your teacher or another player play a drone in the tonic (or use an online drone). Your teacher or another student can also play an octave lower.

2. Purposefully Use Scales to Improve Your Technique

String Levels Play your scale with no vibrato, with full bows at a slow and steady tempo (quarter note at 40 to 60 beats per minute). Start with just one note to a bow and then progress to two and then four to a bow. Besides improving your comfort level on all four strings, you can also learn the “in-between” string levels needed in double-stops: When it’s time to move to the next string, play the notes on either side of the string change as a double-stop before proceeding to the higher string. For instance, in first position, play fourth finger D and first finger E together before moving on to F. If you do this at the other string crossings as well, “you’re learning seven string levels and not just four,” Barber says.


Shifting Use a guide finger to shift during scale practice. If you’re shifting with your first finger, play the note the first finger is on before making the shift. For example, in a three-octave G major scale, remain in first position until you’re on the E string ready to shift to first finger A. Before you shift from second finger G, play first finger F-sharp and keep it down to shift up to the A. And coming down the E string, shift from first finger C down to fourth finger B, but play first finger F-sharp before you actually play the B. Practicing your shifts in your scales using guide fingers will stabilize your left hand and help you learn where you’re shifting to. Once you’re comfortable, repeat the shift back and forth to teach your hand to expand and contract.

Besides improving your comfort level on all four strings, you can also learn the ‘in-between’ string levels needed
in double-stops.

When shifting, remember to shift your thumb along with your hand as a unit. In fifth position and higher, keep your thumb anchored lightly to the saddle of the neck. In high positions especially, anchor your fingers to keep your hand still—keep them down unless you absolutely must lift them. For instance, if your fingering at the top of a scale in fifth position is 1-2-3-4-4-4, keep your first, second, and third fingers down even while you’re stretching your fourth finger to the top note. Repeat the top octave several times both ascending and descending. “The top octave is often where trouble happens,” Barber says.

Intervals Scales offer many ways to practice your thirds, sixths, and octaves both broken and double-stopped. Start with broken intervals before double-stops. Place fingers individually to map out the finger pattern first. For G major in thirds, for example, on the G string start with second finger B and then open string D before playing them together, keeping the B down. Then play open D, first finger E, second finger B, and third finger C, anchoring all fingers down on the map, and then play the C-E double-stop.


Shifting up, repeat the exercise with D and F-sharp, playing them separately with your first and third fingers, and then lay down your second and fourth fingers separately for the E and G. “After every shift, stop and think out each new finger pattern and placement before you play,” says Barber. Also, when moving from one double stop to the next, keep fingers anchored whenever possible. With octaves, apply the same idea: In G major, play open G and third finger G separately and then as an octave while keeping the high G down. Then play open G, first finger A, third finger G, and fourth finger A all separately and keeping all fingers down, before playing the A octave.

When you shift, move your hand as a unit, shifting the first and fourth fingers simultaneously and thinking ahead about where the whole and half-step shifts occur. In descending, lead down with the first finger and expand the hand frame. With fingered octaves, keep the hand midway between the two positions and stretch the first finger back instead of stretching the fourth finger up. Open your hand across the back of the knuckles for more width.

Bowings Change up your bowings not only for the sake of variety, but also to practice your technique. The change can be as simple as starting a scale or arpeggio on an up bow. Or, try different patterns, such as two slurred notes followed by two separate notes. Then play your scale with other bowing techniques, such as spiccato, sautille, up-bow and down-bow staccato, and ricochet bouncing with two, three, or four notes in the down bow.