Why play scales and arpeggios?
The pieces we play are built on various rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structures and the more familiar we are with these structures, the easier it is to understand and learn our repertoire. By studying scales, arpeggios, double stops and broken chords we consolidate the vast array of separate notes into recognisable patterns that will help us learn new repertoire more quickly and provide security in performance.
Once you have a working knowledge of fingerboard geography, scale practice is a useful place to challenge your technique and set yourself new problems to solve. This develops what Galamian calls the correlation, the building of the responsiveness of our muscles to mental directives. Ongoing research into high-level music performance supports this way of constantly challenging ourselves. Anders Ericsson writes of deliberate practice in the area of music performance ...
The principal challenge to attaining expert performance is to induce stable specific changes that allow the performance to be incrementally improved ... Research on deliberate practice in music ... shows that continued attempts for mastery require that the performer always try, by stretching performance beyond its current capabilities, to correct some specific weakness, while preserving other successful aspects of function. Ericsson, p.698
Compendiums of technique such as those by Sevcik and Dounis, as well as the scale systems of Galamian and Flesch with their endless array of rhythmic and bowing variations, offer years of challenging study that help build you into an expert performer.
Effective scale practice depends on a well set-up hand position and fluid shifting.
Maintain a balanced hand position so that all fingers can reach the strings with ease and without delay.
Think about fluid movements of the left arm. In three or four octave scales the left arm makes two basic movements. The first movement is for crossing strings and the second is for shifting.
- To cross strings we need an arm steering movement as the arm rolls to the left as we move from the G-string to the E-string. This movement is reversed for descending passages from the E-string back to the G-string.
- To shift between lower positions and 5th position or higher, the arm needs to move to the right and towards the body as we shift up around the corner of the violin or viola. Again this is reversed when shifting down to 4th position or lower.
These actions of the arm need to flow into each other without a noticeable gear change. An upper arm that is free and available to move will make the correct movements when needed.
Hold fingers down, especially:
- Fingers that are used as guides in shifting.
- Fingers that give stability to the hand. This applies especially to the 1st finger when playing up high.
Think about the relevant shifting actions
- Shift to the whole-hand position. This applies especially to scales where all four fingers will follow immediately one after the other.
- Practise guide fingers, including for double stop scales.
- Keep the thumb at the throat of the neck in high-position shifting for as long as possible to help descending shifts.
It is essential to play scales and arpeggios from memory.
- Only use the music in the early stages as a fingering guide and then play from memory.
- Just the fingering written out can be useful.
2 & 3 octave scales
Start where possible on 1st finger since this is the most useful for repertoire. Flesch and others suggest starting on the 2nd finger. However this causes a wide stretch in the first octave that is uncomfortable in the early stages of learning. For instance, starting B major on the 2nd finger has such a stretch between the 4th finger D# on the G-string and the 1st finger E on the D-string.
Use pattern fingerings: In 3-8ve scales you can use one pattern for open string keys such as G and D, one pattern for lower scales such as Ab to C# and one pattern for higher scales such as Eb to F#. See Scores 3-8ve Major Scales - violin & viola
Think about your hand size. In 3-8ve scales, smaller hands will shift more often and larger hands will more readily use extensions.
There are two fingering systems -
0 1 2 1 2 3 4 is the most common, and gives greater clarity at speed. Even though there is a small shift of the fingers the thumb does not shift along the neck as in a standard shift but acts as a pivot.
0 1 1 2 2 3 4 is less commonly used for a fast chromatic scale. However it is good practice as it is one of the few exercises that develop the horizontal finger slide. We constantly need our fingers to move by a semitone or even a tone along the string. This can be done by a lift and place or by a slide.
Make the string crossing action smooth since if the bow is late getting to the new string the coordination will suffer.
Maintain an even friction with the bow. We may unconsciously release the bow pressure as we cross strings (especially in fast détaché and slurred passages), which will also cause coordination problems. Practise the bowing pattern on open strings and consciously maintain the appropriate bow friction while crossing strings.
Different bowing articulations challenge our left hand in different ways.
- Descending slurs: fast passagework with descending slurs challenges both the evenness of our finger lift as well as the clarity of articulation. Ensure that you lift your fingers with enough energy.
- Sautillé, spiccato and ricochet bowstrokes. Such strokes show up any problems with the left hand, such as evenness or clarity of articulation, and are therefore excellent for coordination practice.
Scales in one position
Galamian in his book Contemporary Violin Technique divided scale playing into the two components of string-crossing and shifting, allowing the player to focus on one issue at a time. In 'Scales in one position' the focus is on a 2-octave scale across all 4 strings, whereas one-string scales focus on shifting without string crossings.
'Scales in one position' start on any note, not necessarily the tonic, and this is good for aural training. Repeat in different positions without changing position during the scale.
While practising Scales in one position you can focus on even fingerfall, fluid string crossing (with both the left and right arms) and programming the finger patterns. Practising each scale in three tempos is also an excellent way to develop clear articulation at fast tempos. See Scales in One Position
As technical work is an ideal place for us to challenge ourselves, it is important that we do not always practise in the same way. Here are some ideas:
Start from the top of a scale or arpeggio, not always from the bottom. See Practise Scales Descending
Only play up and down the top octave of a 3-8ve scale. You can practise a sequence of top octaves, for instance play the top octaves of A, Bb, B and C all in a row. See Top Scale Sequence
Practise different forms of scales that relate to the broad range of repertoire that we need to play. Whole tone and pentatonic scales are useful.
Change your bowing and rhythmic patterns regularly. See Galamians Contemporary Violin Technique for a thorough compendium.
Practice rhythms from your current repertoire, such as a habanera or a dotted rhythm, on every note or one bow per note. See Coordination & Practice for a broad discussion of practice
Scale practice in groups
Working on technical issues in groups can build motivation as well as develop technique.
Géza Szilvay in Finland (www.colourstrings.fi) has developed a whole range of scale exercises in groups:
- One player steps out a scale pattern (major, melodic, harmonic or natural minor) and other players guess and play the scale.
- Szilvay teaches the 3rd octave of scales early; students slide on one finger for the top octave.
- The group divides into two halves, with one half silently fingering and the other half playing, then swapping.
Practise your intonation focusing on the whole chord, that is while playing the 3rd degree of a scale, your inner hearing can relate it to the tonic. Practise scales in 3rds singing one line and playing the other. Here are group ideas for intonation:
Play scales in three parts. This makes triads and helps develop a feel for chord tuning. The first player starts, the second player starts when the first player is on the 3rd note, and the third player starts when the first player is on the 5th note.
3-octave scales with each octave played at the same time. Divide the group into three, and each group starts on a different octave. This can be done with each group just playing their own octave or playing through all 3 octaves. Listening down to the bottom octave helps intonation.
One or more players hold a drone. This is especially useful for arpeggios.
Play scales in contrary motion.
Practice one octave of Scales in one position with each position played twice. On the second time shift up the lower string. For instance, play one octave of Bb major across the A and E-strings and then repeat it up the A-string.
Variation - Try using various fingerings such as only 1st and 2nd fingers.
Scales & Arpeggios
- Play Scales Descending
- Scales in One Position
- Top-Octave Sequence
Coordination & Practice
Resources - Bibliography and Repertoire
Scores - 3-8ve Major Scales - violin & viola