Saturday, December 14, 2013

Creative Scale Practice

Scales in 12 keys and all of their varieties (major, natural/melodic/harmonic minor) are a fundamental every musician must learn. Students learn scales but often don't understand why they are important. Here are some reasons you need to work on this fundamental technique:


  • to develop technique, speed and fluency
  • to understand keys, scale tones and their relationships
  • to develop accurate intonation
  • to have warm-up material
  • to learn to building blocks of composition and improvisation

Scales are often overlooked in practice and seen as boring. Often the argument against scales is that musical passages are rarely scalar. This is just not true. Yes, composed music rarely has a passage that just goes do-re-mi for two to three octaves. But you should think of the scale as musical DNA. In it lies a code to all music. By taking it apart and exploring those 7 notes in every possible permutation you will being to see scales in all types of music.


If the only way you ever practice a scale is from tonic to tonic, ascending a few octaves and descending, no wonder you're bored. That is just the tip of the musical iceberg.


Here are other ways you should begin to explore scales (I will use a Bb Major Scale for these examples):


Ascending/descending but also willingly switching directions at random times:



  • Start on the tonic. Ascend. At some point, change directions. Then, change again. Here you are practicing melodic contour. Take this exercise through the whole range of your instrument at different tempi. 
Ascending/descending while changing directions randomly

Through all intervals:
  • Ascending and descending in 2nds is only one tiny way to practice a scale. Run through each scale in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves. If you haven't ever done this you will need to think and work on it. But take a look at any piece of repertoire you are working on. These intervals are everywhere in addition to stepwise movement. Why not make it a part of your fundamentals practice?
  • There are three ways to do this:
    • play each interval ascending (low-high)
    • play each interval descending (high-low)
    • alternate between the two
Diatonic 3rds: alternating between ascending/descending
Diatonic 6ths: ascending (low-high)
Triads:
  • Play each scale by arpeggiating the diatonic triads in first inversion. 
    • play each triad ascending (do mi sol/re fa la/mi sol ti...)
    • play each triad descending (sol mi do/la fa re/ ti sol mi...)
    • alternate between the two (do mi sol/la fa re/mi sol ti/do la fa...)
    • You can also try other inversions

Diatonic triads: ascending (do-mi-sol, re-fa-la, me-sol-ti...)
Diatonic triads: alternating between ascending/descending 
(do-mi-sol, la-fa-re, mi-sol-ti, do-la-fa)
Seventh chords:
  • Same as above but with seventh chords
Adding a leading tone below the interval, triad or seventh chord:
  • Same as the above but add the note that is a half step below the root of each interval,triad or seventh chord.
Leading tone added below each diatonic triad

"Super arpeggios"
  • This is a technique of taking a scale and playing it in constantly ascending or descending thirds (do mi sol ti re fa la do me sol...). You will notice that the whole scale is there. Just in a different order. There are two of these "super arpeggios" in any key. One starting on Do and one on Re. Practice both.
"Super Arpeggios" 
Adding chromaticism: 
  • Take a scale and add a chromatic passing tone between any whole step interval in the scale. (e.g. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Si La Ti Do). Jazz musicians often practice this technique by using what educators call a "bebop scale".
    Ascending scale with chromatic note added 
    between the 5th and 6th scale degree (Sol Si La)
    F "bebop" scale: note the notes of a F7 chord fall on the beat
    With all rhythmic note values:
    • With a steady pulse play all scales with half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, half note triplets, quarter note triplets, eighth note triplets, swing eighths.
    • Change these values in the middle of the scale (but maintain the pulse).
    • Create a regular rhythmic ostinato that you maintain throughout the scale practice.
    With combination of accents and articulation:
    • Accent every X number of notes. 
    • Create a rhythmic pattern using accents.
    • Play legato. Staccato. Slurred. Tongued. And any combination  (e.g. slur only between half steps. Play every third note staccato. etc.)
    Leave one or more notes out of the scale:
    • Replace one or more notes of the scale with a rest.
    • e.g. Do Re (rest) Fa Sol La (rest) Do
    • This one is harder than you would think! 
    Scale with Mi and Ti replaced with rests
    Mix and match the above! 
    • Take two of these ideas and mash them together.
    • Create your own ideas on how to play scales.

    Finally, create! Compose or improvise melodies using the above techniques.

    Hopefully this is more than enough to give you some ideas. Once you start playing with scales this way your eyes will open to just how much music can be created out of 7 simple notes.

    The important thing is to take each one of these and really play with it. Go slow. Don't take this fast until you feel confident at slower tempi. Speed is not the primary goal. Control, mastery, and exploration are of primary concern.

    Have fun! If it helps, here is a video where I demonstrate some of the above examples.


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