The scale of the problem

I am sure that I am not the only one who has come across the issues of scales when teaching. Some students, both adults and children don’t engage with scales and to be honest just don’t get it. However, in many ways they are one of the most important aspects of learning any musical instrument, and as far as exams are concerned are easy marks, after all you don’t need to worry about all the other aspects, melodic phrasing, harmony, changes in tempo and a myriad of other things that need attention when playing a melody (although I must admit G# minor in 3rds on a Trombone is quite a challenge).

So why this antipathy towards scales, after all they are the basic building blocks of most western music? We learn to read by recognising and understanding letters initially, and then use them to form words that then become the basis of language and communication. Music is similar, the notes are equivalent to letters and scales the patterns that are formed with them to form phrases and ultimately musical compositions.

The linkeage of scales to pieces is absolutely crucial to students grasping their importance. How may times have I heard someone struggle with a scalic passage only to play it much better when they realise that it is just a Bb major (or any other) scale in another format. In fact many pieces can be analysed in this way and the effect on a performer can be dramatic, but learning a scale in the first place can be tricky. Frequently, I see students struggle with scales, but when asked how they generally learn to use things, a new phone for example, they say that the first thing they do is switch it on and press a few buttons to see what happens. If it doesn’t do what was expected they then go to the book and find out. When learning scales however, it is often the case that they try to read the music from a book and expect to remember it, and this kind of visual learning that they don’t use in any other area of life is supposed to work. Better still, and often quite successful, particularly with singers, is to allow them to work out the scale by trial and error, and ultimately by ear, much like the phone example. In the first instance there will probably be lots of mistakes but with practice the scale sticks and is often retained. This also works quite well with arpeggios in many cases.

I know some teachers use different methods of trying to make scales interesting, different rhythms, speeds etc. but ultimately it requires an understanding that they are the building blocks of everything we do and that many pieces become so much easier if we can play them.

Chris License

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *