7 Things To Do When Practicing Scales

This is part one of 'How To Practice Scales' for violinists and violists (great for cellists too!)

Why Do We Practice Scales?

Scales are the backbone of all repertoire - look carefully and you’ll see that fragments of scales are in everything you play!

Scales also train your technique on the instrument (position changes and intonation, for example) as well as prepare you for more consistent hand position, greater fluency, accuracy, and speed - all things that make you a stronger, more consistent, and more confident violinist.

Do You Practice Scales Slowly?

When you are engaging in slow practice of scales and arpeggios, you are moving through the Four Stages of Competence, namely:

Conscious Incompetence” to “Unconscious Competence”, i.e, slow, conscious learning of a scale pattern all the way up to easy execution that becomes fluent and “second nature”.

When you are in the beginning stages of learning a scale - or even if you have had many years of training - playing scales slowly can afford you a great opportunity to refine your playing technique.

This is where you can really make gains, not only in learning and perfecting the individual pitches but also in:

  1. refining your unique sound
  2. finessing your individual playing style
  3. addressing your playing posture
  4. tweaking the execution of both your left hand technique as well as right hand technique, and
  5. refining the synchronization of your two hands.

Phew, that’s already a lot going on right there!  

When I practice scales with a metronome (sometimes I use a metronome, sometimes I don’t), I set my metronome to Quarter = 52, something that I learned as a teenager from my summer studying with the great pedagogue Kurt Sassmannshaus in Aspen Music Festival.

7 Things To Do When Practicing Scales

1. Listen for Sympathetic Vibrations

Listen for maximum vibration and resonance in your instrument. Use both your eyes and ears to verify that your strings are vibrating widely. Doing so helps to verify both good intonation and beautiful, resonant sound coming out of your instrument.

2. Tune Any Perfect Intervals with Open Strings

As I move up and down the scale, I check with relevant open strings and listen for maximum resonance and good intonation on perfect intervals, namely: unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves.

The goal is to listen for and eliminate beats (heard as a “wah, wah, wah”) on perfect intervals. When perfect intervals are very out of tune, the beats are very rapid; when the two pitches get closer to being in tune, the beats slow down “wah…. wah…. wah….” until they eventually disappear.

For example, in a D major scale, I listen for my stopped/fingered A to match my open A string (whether it’s a unison or an octave.)

3. Look for Double Stop Opportunities (DSO’s)

When there are no relevant open strings to use as a pitch reference, this is where I look for what I call Double Stop Opportunities (DSO’s).

Where can I leave my fingers down and form double stops across two different strings?

Listening to the intonation of the double stop not only trains my ear, but also trains the consistency of my hand frame - something which helps build your speed and accuracy in repertoire.

An example: In A flat major starting on the G string, it is possible to keep the first finger down across both G and D strings to build a series of double stops all the way up to the octave.

4. Avoid Fishing for Pitches

This tip which has been made popular by Nathan Cole is an excellent one as it addresses a universal habit among string players.

We tend to slide our fingers around when we hear an out-of-tune pitch. This is not a bad thing necessarily as it proves that we are consciously listening - and actively correcting - our intonation.

However, in order to make real gains, it’s best to train the fingers to lift and drop cleanly.

If I catch myself fishing, I go back, retrace my steps and train with clean lifting and dropping of my fingers, encouraging myself to retrain the fingers so that they get it right the first time.

5. Train Your Fourth and First Finger

This tip and the next two tips are related.

Building up speed in passages and in scales comes with being as efficient as possible.

One way to do this is to make sure fingers are down (and relaxed) ahead of time when appropriate.

A perfect example of this is crossing strings inside a scale: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4, whether going up or down the scale. Before the bow crosses to the new string, I make sure the finger of the next note in the scale or passage is down as a double stop ahead of the string crossings.

You want the fingers to be ready and waiting and before the bow.

6. Make Sure Your Fingers are Down Ahead of Time

Encourage your fingers to remain in shape and resting on the fingerboard when possible.

As I play the scale, I look for "misbehaving" fingers: the first finger flying up and the fourth finger sinking below the fingerboard are common examples.

Sometimes lifting the first finger off of the fingerboard or letting the fourth finger deviate from a textbook hand frame can help keep the hand more relaxed in certain passages (and I’m all for finding more relaxation in my hand!).

However, if allowing the first finger to fly up in the air is the root cause of intonation accuracies as well as lack of efficiency (which prevents you from playing faster), then take the time to re-evaluate the positioning of your first finger and determine if keeping it closer and in shape over the fingerboard is comfortable and possible. This will help ensure the quietness and accuracy of your hand.

Remember: the first finger is the “root” of the hand, the foundation on which the other fingers are built inside of a scalar passage. If the first finger is not down, or at least in good shape over the fingerboard, there is a risk for the other fingers to quickly go out of tune.

7. Keep Fingers in a Healthy Hand Frame

I like to talk about “Hand Hygiene”, the ‘H’, which is part of my AHA Strategy to building Bulletproof Intonation (Awareness, Hygiene, Audiation).

I like to train my four fingers to be “ready and waiting” and in good formation.

The hand has a natural curve over the fingerboard when positioned with a neutral wrist that is neither in flexion or extension.

From this position, clean lifting and dropping of each finger is the goal, and is ideally done without compromising the overall frame, positioning, and shape of the hand.

I continue to examine my hand frame after decades of playing the violin. With training and consistency, it is indeed possible to make positive, lasting changes to your left hand technique. (Even my karate sensei notices that my hands look strong and nimble!)

For a visual explanation, be sure to watch the video linked above and stay tuned for Part 2 where I go into more advanced concepts on How To Play Scales.

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Categories: Practice Strategies, Violin Technique, Violin Tutorials