Making the case for practicing scales

In my first post, I'm going to try explain why I consider scales to be the basis for practicing a string instrument by giving a few reasons for practicing scales every day:

Reason No. 1: Learn from the masters

Though there have been few exceptions in recent history, most of the great string players spent a significant amount of time practicing scales throughout their lives. There are many examples, but perhaps the best is Pinchas Zukerman, now in his 60's, who has been practicing scales slowly every single day since he was a small child.

Reason No. 2: Efficiency

If we analyzed our repertoire for the purpose of identifying recurring patterns, we would come up with the 24 scales and arpeggios. Master these, and most of the pieces you'll ever have to play will already be in your fingers.

Reason No. 3: Finger Patterns

Practicing scales engrains hand positions into your brain. By doing that, your brains memorizes not only the location to place each finger on the fingerboard, but also the location of the hand for each position. That eliminates the need for the brain to analyze each finger separately, and start thinking in terms of note groups. Arpeggios and octave scales are especially useful for this.

Reason No. 4: Discipline:

One of the most challenging things about learning an instrument, is developing discipline. Practicing scales slowly with a metronome develops discipline in rhythm and intonation. But it also pushes our concentration to it's limits in a way that practicing pieces by playing in tempo simply can't.

Reason No. 5: House of cards or Fort Knox?

Our practice and performance environments are very different. In addition, we never know how it will be different. Will my bow shake because of nerves? Will I be jeg-lagged? Will the acoustics make it hard for me to hear? The best way to prepare for the unknown is to build a solid foundation that we can fall back on. The most effective way to build that foundation is by practicing scales and etudes.

Reason No. 6: Don't sweat the big stuff:

So many things about learning to play an instrument are difficult if not impossible to teach. Stage presence, style and timing are some examples. Scales and etudes don't fall into that category. Practicing these correctly will yield tangible results for anyone who devotes time to them. There is no magic there and it's not a question of talent.

In Conclusion:

In my opinion there are simply no shortcuts or magic to playing well. It shocks me how often I meet students who don't practice scales. When a student takes that challenge on seriously, the dramatic improvement never fails to amaze me.

In the next post, I will post a video and some sheet music to demonstrate how I practice scales. Please be so kind as to share your thoughts and ideas.

Thanks for reading,

Ori Kam

Let's get started...

Before I post the first video demonstrating the most effective way (in my opinion) to practice scales, I wanted to talk about some very basic concepts.

1. Slow motion:

This is a very important distinction, one that comes up again and again when I teach. The idea is not to play slowly, but to slow all the movements respectively as if one is moving in slow motion.

2. Control:

The idea of practicing in general is to gain control. we develop control by slowing our motions as much as possible. It requires much more control to move slowly than to move at regular speed. Think of Tai Chi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBvF6r6DOvc). Why do we practice control? One of the hard things about playing an instrument is that the circumstances under which we practice are very different than those under which we perform. In an audition or concert, when we get nervous our vibrato get may get faster, our sense of time may change, our hands might get sweaty and thus change our feeling of the fingerboard. If we develop only the amount of control needed to perform well in the practice environment, we will crash and burn in an audition or concert. Therefore we must develop much more control than we actually need when we practice.

3. Shifting:

When shifting, most of us think of the position we want to reach. That means that most of us throw our hands upwards. Shifting has a speed that must be in relation to the notes before and after.When shifting slowly, in one speed of motion, we force our brains to memorize the distance to the next position, not just the end location of the next position. Learning to shift as slowly as possible develops a greater control and reduces the chances of errors.

4. Bow control:

Practicing scales is not only for the left hand. Equal bow-division forces us to create a mind-bow connection. It forces us to think about what bow speed we need to use in order to get to the tip within 4 beats of the metronome. It also forces us to be aware of where we are in the bow at all times.

5. Point-of-contact (the place on the string where the bow is placed):

By focusing on keeping a uniform point-of-contact throughout the scale, we force our mind to be aware of the point of contact.

6. Sound:

the sound we create changes by manipulating 3 variables: point of contact, weight and bow-speed. When playing scales, we don't change the point-of-contact or the bow-speed. Therefore the weight we use must be adjusted to maintain an even sound. This forces us to practice the changes we need to make to compensate for the various elements that make playing with an even sound a physically unnatural thing. For example, the weight our hand applies to the string is much greater at the frog than at the tip. We must learn how much weight to apply to the bow to counter that difference.

7. Back to speed:

When a baby learns to walk, it first slowly stands us holding on to a rail. Then it learns to balance, shifting its weight from leg to leg. Most of us try to run before we can walk. We practice at a speed which is greater than the speed in which our brains can control all the elements we are trying to incorporate. My philosophy is keep it easy. The last movement of Bartok concerto would not seep difficult if it were titled Molto Lento. Practicing slowly allows our brain to internalize the elements of the motions we are trying to practice in a much more effective way than trying to jam all of the elements together at the same time. For me, the concept of difficult means trying to play beyond the level of control I currently possess. As I wrote earlier, one develops control not by practicing very slowly, not too fast.

 

My Scale System

I wanted to explain the source of the scales that I will post. In my education, I was taught to play scales in several ways:

Chaim Taub based his scale exercises on the Flesch book. But he added a second octave in numbers 1-4 where possible. Basically, if a started within the first fourth of the string, 2 octaves are played. Any higher than that and only one octave is played. For example on the C-string, scales starting on C, C#, D, Eb, E and F use 2 octaves, and anything higher than an F# is one octave.

To many of my students this seems very "difficult" at first. But every students finds quite quickly that the paradigm of higher positions being "harder" is false. Players learn quickly to feel comfortable in higher positions. In No.5, a fourth octave is added in C, C#, D, Eb, E and F scales.

The sound production in high positions is also quite different than in the lower positions. As the string gets shorter, the point of contact must also get closer to the bridge and more weight must be used to produce a ringing sound. This is a great discipline to develop.

Pinchas Zukerman also spent a lot of time with his students on scales, but used the Galamian approach. Nos.1-4 are dismissed and more emphasis is placed on the bow in the 3/4 octave scale.

Finally, The double stops are an essential part of playing scales. It's hard to convey the advancement seen in students who start to seriously practice scales in general, but double stops in particular. Thirds, sixths, and octaves help the hands form into more precise positions.

Finally, slow and patient work on tenths, help us develop and maintain flexibility. But special care has to be given to stretching in a relaxed way, without forcing, and avoiding practicing this for too long.

More on all of this as I write more.

C-Major No.1

Here is a video of how I think No. 1 should be executed.

Notice the following:

1) I use a metronome

2) I distribute the bow evenly over 8 beats for the scale and 6 for the arpeggios.

3) Shifting is executed slowly and with even speed between the two notes (more on this later)

4) bow changes are slow

5) contact point of the bow and the string does not change and the sound is concentrated and even.

For each number of the Flesch book, I will focus on a different element. First, I would like to talk about bow division. In the scale, we want to divide the bow evenly for each note. The metronome helps us achieve this, so does playing in front of a mirror.

If we want to play with even bow speed across the bow, we must learn to start the bow with the correct bow speed, weight and contact point (the position of the bow on the string between the bridge and the fingerboard). It's important to be aware of how we intend to use the bow before we start playing as opposed to constantly adjusting during the scale. The sound should be concentrated, even and resonant. The contact point should be as close to the bridge as possible, and the bow parallel to the bridge.

When I practice scales, I'm in a "zone". In a way it's like meditating or doing Yoga. Whereas yoga addresses the mind-body connection, I like to think of scales as the mind-instrument connection. I try to find a calm, quiet space in my head, and use scales as a mental exercise for focus, concentration and awareness. Try to create a connection between your mind - through your arms - to the bow and the string. This starts to incorporate the instrument as an extension of your body.

Most important, never practice when you're not concentrated and aware. It's better to do 5 minutes focused, than 60 absentmindedly. Train yourself to extend your concentration. If you can do 5 minutes the first week, and 6 the second week, you'll be able to do 30 minutes in no time. And you'll get more out of your practice time. The trick is to recognize the moment when your concentration has gone and bring it back.

 

I welcome your comments and questions.

 

Ori Kam

 

C-Major No.2

Here is a video of how I think No. 2 should be executed.
To remind you from No.1:

  1. I use a metronome
  2. I distribute the bow evenly over 8 beats for the scale and 6 for the arpeggios.
  3. Shifting is executed slowly and with even speed between the two positions (more on this later)
  4. bow changes are slow
  5. contact point of the bow and the string does not change and the sound is concentrated and even.

In this scale, let's talk about playing in higher positions. The challenge is that as the string gets shorter, the amplitude of the string's vibration gets smaller, and so the bridge vibrates less resulting in smaller sound. To compensate for that, the point of contact should change in relation to the string length, or in other words: the higher the positions, the point of contact should be closer to the bridge.

In addition, the viola should be held higher in higher positions. This helps the hand slide downward towards the bridge, rather than have to climb.

This perhaps, is a good opportunity to discuss our concept of "difficult". We all live with the illusion that difficulty is a real thing. But in fact, it is all in our head. It is usually a result of trying something unsuccessfully for the first time and then tagging it as "difficult". Our fear or stress from the perceived difficulty will manifest as tightening in the hands or body, hand sweating, or even unawareness of viola position or other elements of our playing that will make the passage much more difficult that it otherwise could be.

I imagine many of you looking at this scale think "this is difficult". I invite you to breathe, relax, take your time, start slowly, and figure out how to make this scale "easy".

I welcome your comments and questions.

Ori Kam

 

C-Major No.3

Here is a video of how I think No. 3 should be executed.
To remind you from No.1:

  1. I use a metronome
  2. I distribute the bow evenly over 8 beats for the scale and 6 for the arpeggios.
  3. Shifting is executed slowly and with even speed between the two positions (more on this later)
  4. bow changes are slow
  5. contact point of the bow and the string does not change and the sound is concentrated and even.

In this scale, let's talk about practicing to make our intonation better. In general, playing a note that is out of tune is an opportunity. When we fix the note, our general level of intonation gets better, when we continue and leave it, it gets worse. Think about our listening for intonation as a muscle that needs to be fine tuned.

Some of the techniques for checking an improving intonation are:

  1. Check against an open string where possible. In the case of C Major, No.2 has an open C at all times. In No.3, you can use the open G.
  2. Set a tuner to the tonic (C in this case) while playing the scale.
  3. sing the note in your head before playing it. If you have an idea for the pitch before playing the note, it will be easier to adjust.

This last point is essential. Scales are a great opportunity to practice our theme "Head before hands". In this specific case - imagining the pitch before we play it. With most students, when something is out of tune, suggesting to hear the pitch before playing it solves 99% of the issues. But this is a discipline that needs to be practiced over and over again until it becomes our second nature.

I welcome your comments and questions.

Ori Kam

 

C-Major No.4

Here is a video of how I think No. 4 should be executed.
To remind you from No.1:

  1. I use a metronome
  2. I distribute the bow evenly over 8 beats for the scale and 6 for the arpeggios.
  3. Shifting is executed slowly and with even speed between the two positions (more on this later)
  4. bow changes are slow
  5. contact point of the bow and the string does not change and the sound is concentrated and even.

In this scale, let's discuss the difference of sound on different strings. Notice here the vast difference between No.1 on the C string and No.4 on the a string. Look for a beautiful, singing sound, never stressed or pressed. The left hand should also be more relaxed, and observe the different position of the left thumb, elbow, and wrist.

In addition, find a good position for your viola, so that the string is parallel to the ground, and the bow can rest downwards on the string, rather than sideways if the viols is not flat.

I welcome your comments and questions.

Ori Kam