Practicing Scales & Études: How to NOT Get Bored!

Today I realized that I’ve been practicing scales wrong for most of my life. A great way to start a practice session is with a slow scale; the first thing I play every day is a G major scale, beginning with quarter notes and working up to 64th notes in the Galamian acceleration pattern. But instead of just going through the motions, it’s a lot more beneficial (and interesting) to turn on a drone of the tonic of the key you’re playing in and carefully tune every note to the drone, especially the 4th, 5th, unison, and octave pitches. This can definitely get monotonous, but concentrating this intently definitely improves intonation quickly and makes practicing scales more interesting.

It’s also important to mix up keys every so often; for example, I love G major for some reason (probably because it starts on an open string) and play at least a scale or two, sixths, and octaves in that key every day. Sometimes a good way to make sure you visit every key regularly is to pick a key at random that you haven’t done in awhile, and play major, melodic & harmonic minor scales, thirds, sixths, and octaves in that key with a drone. I probably sound like a crazy lady for saying this is fun, but it’s good in that you feel productive while making noticeable improvements in your intonation and listening skills.

Another important thing to practice scales for besides intonation is sustaining through notes, consistent vibrato, bow direction, and smooth shifts with no tension in either the left or right hands. For focusing on these aspects, it’s good to play the scale at a slower tempo. Exercises like Kreutzer and Sevcik can obviously help these too, but scales can be good in that the notes are a little less complicated than some études, so you can focus on other technical aspects. I usually spend about 20/30 mins on scales and double stops, then move to whichever études I’m in the mood for.

Using scales to practice right hand technique is also a great way to kill two birds with one stone; for example, use your favorite scale to practice collé if you get bored with Kreutzer #7, or practice up/down bow staccato or spiccato with your comfortable scale fingering patterns so you can focus more on the right hand.

Also, don’t forget to BREATHE! We always need to practice breathing while playing, and there’s no better time to do that than during our technical practice. Kreutzer #4 is great for this: my teacher in San Francisco told me to think of this exercise like Bach’s final chorale; apparently, according to legend, Bach composed his last chorale with each dying breath, using the breath between each measure of unison whole notes to symbolize each of his strained breaths. I guarantee you that if you practice with some yoga-like breathing during your technique, you will notice a change when working on your concerto or sonata, and your sound will open up! Taking a second to breathe and focus calmly on what exactly we’re trying to do makes practice sessions more effective and efficient. So, the next time you open your scale book, try a few of these ideas–hopefully they help!

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