I was recently teaching at a music camp and heard a fellow faculty discuss the value of practicing scales.  This is something I feel very strongly about and it was encouraging to hear someone else, (from a different instrument even!) feel the same way.  It somehow gave me comfort knowing that I’m not alone in my obsessive behavior toward scale work.

Robert Spring is the clarinet instructor at this camp and at Arizona State University and a truly amazing musician.  He practices more and more intensely than almost anyone I’ve ever met and an absolute brilliant performer.  So when he gave a talk at camp about why we should practice scales, I definitely wanted to listen.  He was quoting information from an article he has from some scientific journal written by a physicist on brain research.  Basically to paraphrase, this scientist claims that the brain can only handle a finite number of tasks per second.  The act of standing, in and of itself takes up a number of those precious ‘tasks per second’.  Add on to that asking the brain to do something with which it is not completely comfortable (while standing) and you can quickly use up valuable brain resources.

This explains and supports a hypothesis I’ve had for some time.  Musically, the brain can only process so much new information at a given time.  A case in point; I was working a trumpet sectional at this particular camp and the section had a sixteenth-note passage that lasted three complete measures.  We worked the section slowly repeating and vamping on the first measure only, then the same routine for the second measure and finally the third.  Then we coupled the first measure with the second and vamped on that for a while.  Then we coupled the second with the third.  They could play each of the three measures by themselves and even coupled two measures at a time but playing all three measures in a row was a real stumbling block.  I think the phrase was so long that it tapped the ‘tasks per second’ resources in their brains.

So, to finally get to the point of this article, I want to get my scales to the point that they are like signing my name; once I start the first few letters of my signature I go on autopilot and finish the remainder of my name.  I have to believe that committing something to muscle memory through repetition and thoughtful practice reduces the toll it takes on our brain to execute.  If the above-mentioned trumpet section had enough time to work this passage to a comfort level like a well practiced scale, I believe they would have no trouble executing the line.  Or to think of it another way, if that three measure sixteenth-note passage consisted of a C major scale they probably wouldn’t have had the same difficulty because their brains wouldn’t have had to work so hard to tie all those notes together.

So to sum up, thorough scale work reduces stress on the brain which will not only make you a better sight-reader but probably help you live longer and free up needed space in your brain so you can finally juggle four kittens simultaneously.