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