When I was a student, I mildly enjoyed practicing scales. Compared to learning new repertoire with seemingly nebulous expressive and stylistic components, the process for practicing scales was clear. Straightforward. I could do it, check a box on my to-do list and feel that I had accomplished something.
It has taken me much longer to appreciate all that I got from those years of scale practice– and what more I could have taken away had I mentally engaged in a different way. Now that I’m a teacher, it is important to me that my students always have a sense of purpose for their practicing, whether I set their goals or they set their own. This not only facilitates more productive practice, it can make practicing more manageable and gratifying. Knowing why they have been told to practice something makes it infinitely easier to set these goals, so I always bring the topic up for discussion.
Here are some of the reasons to practice scales, in roughly ascending order of importance. The examples are specific to strings, but the principles can apply to any musician.
Scales appear in music. They may as well be at your fingertips, literally.
To learn key signatures. Well, you learn them in theory class too, but playing them is a different way of knowing them, and arguably more important.
To train your ear to hear a key. For developing musicians, scales are a great way to learn to focus your auditory picture around the tonic, or home note.
To facilitate practice of related fundamental skills. Intonation, shifting, bow distribution, tone production, vibrato. Take your pick. They’re all important.
To learn about tone production for all registers of your instrument. The combination of arm weight, bow speed and contact point that you use in first position on the C string is very different from third position on the D string, let alone tenth position on the A string. Might as well work out the kinks in your scales instead of in your repertoire; the skill will generalize better.
To develop muscle memory for playing in all registers of your instrument. This means the changing spacing of your fingers as you ascend the fingerboard, shifting precisely between close positions, adjusting your bow placement to string length, and so on. The more you do it, the more automatic these adjustments become.
Because they can be played musically. No, really. In a really great scale, the notes are connected smoothly and directed as clearly as in a Brahmsian phrase. When you think you’ve got all the technique down, there is always another step you can take.
Now, as an adult player, these are the reasons that I still turn to scales when I need to renew my practice habits after a break… and they are also the reasons that I actually take pleasure in it. It’s a powerful exercise. What do you think are some other reasons why scales are essential for all musicians?