Why Do I Need to Practice Scales? The Value of Tonal Literacy

This article was written from a music educators point of view.  It was written by Thomas West and appears on his website here.  He has graciously allowed me to reprint it here on AllThingsTrumpet.com for you.  Enjoy!

Posted by Thomas J. West on March 14, 2010 at 9:18 PM

Scale Study as a Technique Builder

The most obvious value of studying major scales and tonic arpeggios is that they provide the performer with a basic vocabulary of fine motor skills that are used in approximately 80% of all modern Western music. As I tell my students, how can you speak a language if you don’t learn vocabulary words in that language? Scales and arpeggios are the beginning of that vocabulary. In learning all twelve major scales, instrumentalists are experiencing first-hand the following physical demands of the instrument:

  • String players are introduced to performing scales past the normal “on the tapes” positions of the fingers, as well as being forced by necessity to use the pinky to play in keys in the middle of the circle. They are also introduced to the concept of fingering “shapes” (such as 1st and 2nd finger at a half-step) and how that pattern is found in common between several scales in a row in the circle.
  • Woodwind players learn the necessary alternate fingerings for the most common notes, especially clarinetists, who must learn the appropriate situations to use a left-pinky C natural or right-pinky B natural. Saxophonists find out what the rollers on their bridge key are for, and how the bis key can save them a lot of grief.
  • Brass players learn all seven possible combinations of the valves/slide and experience some of their more awkward combinations such as 1st and 3rd valve changing to 2nd valve.
  • All instrumentalists learn the capabilities of their instrument in terms of the number of octaves they can comfortably produce. Beginning with one octave and moving quickly to two is very achievable for most students.

Also, playing the scales chained together in succession as they occur on the circle of fourths/fifths reaps great benefits. Ed Lisk calls this technique performing the Grand Master Scale. As any jazz musician will tell you, Western melodic lines are chains of scalar passages that connect from one key area to another based on the harmonic progression. By practicing the scales in circle order, students are beginning to “think in keys”.

Students will find fairly quickly that studying scales and arpeggios makes sight-reading and learning their concert repertoire a less cumbersome and daunting experience.

Scale Study as a Vehicle for Teaching Music Theory

One of the things that many performing ensembles struggle to do is find ways of teaching students basic music theory without sacrificing preparation time for concert performances. By investing just a few minutes on a regular basis on scale study, students are learning about key signatures, whole and half steps, enharmonics, major triads, minor triads, seventh chords, parallel and relative minor, forms of the minor scale, modes, and in the case of the band, even transposition. After a brief description of each of these concepts, students can experience all of these theory concepts as part of their scale and arpeggio study, making the information more meaningful than just studying the theory without direct application.

Scale Study as a Gateway to Teaching Improvisation

Once a basic working knowledge of three major scales has been established, concepts for improvisation (jazz or otherwise) can be introduced. Once students “speak the language” they can begin extemporaneously crafting their own lines. Basic concepts of repetition, harmonic outlining, and melodic shaping can easily be introduced when the students are proficient at playing a few scales.

Scale Study as a Tool for Teaching Ensemble Playing Skills

Once students know a single major scale, it is possible to begin teaching ensemble playing skills by playing the scale in the round. Dividing the ensemble into three groups and playing the scale in thirds allows students to experience major, minor, and diminished chords and listen for ensemble concepts such as section intonation, section balance, ensemble balance, ensemble blend, and so on. Dynamics can be added to work on ensemble and individual control of the instrument at multiple dynamic ranges.

Once the students know five major scales in circle of fifths order, they can also play in three keys simultaneously and create major, minor, and diminished chords all the way up and down the scale.

Scale Study in support of Expressive Development

While scales are the technical “nuts and bolts” of performing on an instrument, they do not have to be performed in a monotonous fashion. Dynamic shaping can and should be a part of scale performance. Expressive lines can also be developed by performing the scales in patterns of tetrachords.

Performing patterns such as these requires fluency in whatever key the students are playing.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The study of all twelve diatonic scales and their tonic arpeggios is just a starting point for developing tonal literacy. By senior year of high school, the “average” band/orchestra student should be able to play not only major scales and arpeggios, but can easily transfer that knowledge to performing the natural minor scales. After being exposed to Mr. Lisk’s methods for teaching major scales and taking additional graduate courses on teaching jazz improvisation, it becomes apparent that the performer who wants to completely master their instrument must make a point of studying every tonal pattern that is commonly used in Western music composition. Here is a list of tonal patterns that a serious student would need to master in order to have “done it all” in my perceived order of study:

  1. Major scales and tonic triad arpeggios
  2. Natural minor scales and tonic triad arpeggios
  3. Chromatic scale
  4. Pentatonic scale
  5. Dominant seventh arpeggios
  6. Harmonic and melodic minor scales
  7. Remaining modes
  8. Major seventh arpeggios
  9. Major ninth arpeggios
  10. Whole tone scales (both of them)
  11. Octatonic scales (both of them)

This All Sounds Great, But When Will I Have Time to Teach Scales?

Like most things in any kind of education, a teacher has to make decisions about how to invest their time. There is no question that studying scales as a part of individual and ensemble study takes time. I begin teaching major scales to students as soon as they have enough control over their instrument to be able to produce a full octave of sound. For string players, that often occurs the first day. My first year students generally learn between four and six major scales. Students begin to see the value of learning scales quickly if you explain why their study will benefit them.

Generally, I spend the largest chunk of time on scale study at the beginning of the school year, laying the knowledge base that will carry them through the year. After introducing the scales in a systematic way, it becomes a simple matter of drilling them as part of a warm-up routine. Students begin to take on scale performance as a matter of pride: “I can play six scales in two octaves!” I have even had students that, when introduced to the concept of natural minor, took it upon themselves to figure out how to play them all without us going over them in class.

Scale study takes time, but the benefit to the performing ensemble as a whole is significant. More importantly, the benefit to the individual student is immense. It takes instrumental music performance from the realm of “something I do for fun” to “something I am really good at” for many students who otherwise would learn just their part to the concert repertoire. And after all, isn’t the goal of music education to teach students how to become well-rounded musicians? If all they can play is the 3rd clarinet part to the Holst 1st Suite in Eb, are they really learning how to be an independent, proficient musician?

Please check out Tom’s site for the best list of music educator resources I have ever seen.