Scale it Up

There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. ~AnaïsNin

If you don’t scale the mountain, you can’t view the plain. ~Chinese proverb

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

My head is awash in abstract aspects of practice, like motivation, and esoteric (though useful) theories, and it’s reflected in this blog. I’m thinking this is not such a good thing. Many of these posts have been less useful for the everyday practice of practice, which is the whole point, right? I’ve been talking more about habits of mind than habits of practice. So here’s a post on something you can actually do in your practice: scales. If Music is genetic material, scales are its DNA. This is true for most music, anyway. Scales won’t help you much if you’re going to perform John Cage’s 4′ 33,” or if you’re interested in Inupiat shamanistic drumming, but scales will get you through just about any other music, from any culture (as long as you choose the right scale to practice) and they’re invaluable material for use in improvising. In fact, one study posits that there may be a biological rationale for why scales exist and why they usually contain only 5-7 tones (which also happens to be the capacity for short term memory in humans).

As I started putting my thoughts together on this topic, I realized that a complex set of information is bewildering without tools to make sense of it all. There are so many scales, and so many ways to practice them that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. So I’ve created some tools to help you keep track: checklists, scales, and a few other things. Checklists are making headlines lately (New Yorker article here) because they’ve been shown to improve performance significantly (it’s why pilots use them). Links are below  in PDF format (to get a free PDF reader, go here):

  • Here’s the written music for several types of scales (major, harmonic minor, pentatonic, blues)
  • Here’s a Checklist to keep track of which scales you’ve learned and which ones you have yet to learn. This includes several scale patterns which are explained at the beginning of the first PDF above. This list isn’t comprehensive, but you should start with these most common scales. There are many more scales than these to learn. Some examples not included are the Insen (or other Japanese scales), ByzantineBebop  scales, and many others.)
  • An exercise tracking form. With this you can monitor the tempo at which you can play the scale or scale pattern (or anything else) on which you’re working.

Here are some scale practice tips:

  1. Have a Plan. Research into practice techniques, and all the best books on practice prove that good planning fosters great progress. Give some thought to how you want to approach your scale practice before you begin. Here are some things to consider:
    • Scale type or starting note?
      • What’s your skill level, where do you want to play, and what kind of music? All of these will impact your choices. Consider each.
      • Do you want to learn 1 particular scale in all keys? I think this is a good approach for beginners, because it gets you familiar with the sound/feel of the particular scale. Just take one type of scale and move it through all 12 starting notes. Or, go through only the more commonly used scales at first (C, F, Bb, Eb, G, D, A).
        • Note: if you’re going to go out and play with guitar players, say at an open mic, practice your sharp keys, the keys guitar players usually play in: E, A, D, G (if the guitar player uses a capo, all bets are off and use your ears).
        • How will you move from one scale to the next? There are several methods which are actually used in music you hear. They’re listed in order of common usage below (if note names or any of these concepts are unfamiliar to you, check out my book, Basic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music):
          1. Around the Circle of 5ths (C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db/C#, Gb/F#, Cb/B, E, A, D, G)
          2. chromatically (C, C#/Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, Bb, B)
          3. by m3 (C, Eb, F#/Gb, A; B, D, F, Ab; Db, E, G, Bb)
          4. by whole step (C, D, E, F#, G#/Ab, Bb; Db/C#, Eb, F, G, A, B)
          5. create your own…
        • Remember: along with each scale is the scale’s mode. For example, in the key of C (no sharps or flats), you can go from C to C (major scale/ionian mode), D to D (dorian mode), E to E (phrygian mode), F to F (lydian mode), G to G (mixolydian mode), A to A (aeolian mode/natural minor scale), or B to B (locrian mode).
      • Do you want to learn scales that all start on the same note? For example, if you use C as your starting note, you can do C major, C minor (natural/harmonic/melodic), C dorian/phrygian/lydian/mixolydian/aeolian/locrian, C major pentatonic, C minor pentatonic, C whole tone, C diminished, C Byzantine, C Insen, etc. etc.
  2. Vary the articulation in the scale, and the style. For example, you can slur the whole thing, or use the tongue-slur, tongue-slur articulation, or its opposite; do scales in triplets; start from the top and go down and then back up; use as many patterns as you can think up (if you create them yourself it’s more fun and you’ll get more benefit from them); vary the dynamics; try them swing style or staccato or legato or marcato, etc.;
  3. Chip away at your scales every day (or at least every practice session).
    • Don’t devote all your practice time to techniques like scales. Remember to include a good 5 minute warm up, practice music, and etudes, and tone quality and improvisation. Scale work is only a small part of the bigger picture.
  4. Take the long view:
    • There are so many scales to learn that it’s crucial for you to take a patient, long view about them. If you know none whatsoever, know that to learn all of them will require several years of practice. This is normal. Don’t think about that, however, just focus on the scale you’re learning right now. Take them one at a time and all will be well. The tortoise always wins the race.

I hope this was helpful and/or useful for you. If you’ve got a strategy that works, please share it in the comments section, and thanks!

Take care, and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


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