5 Fun Ways to Practice Scales
Lots of casual musicians approach practicing scales like kids facing a plate of broccoli: Everyone says it’s good for us, but we’ll do anything to get it over with. But with some clever variations*, practicing scales can help build up your musical chops and improve your improvisational skill. Here are five ways to change up your routine, challenge yourself, and maybe even have some fun in the process. (You know it’s good for you.)
- Perfect Timing
Really want to improve your dexterity? Practice scales with a metronome or click track. The timing will help you play each note evenly, even as you reposition your fingers or hands on the instrument. Add some flavor by changing the time signature: Play scales in triplets, for example, or something unconventional like five-four.
- Moments of Pause
Instead of trucking through scales nonstop, you can play a stop-and-go variation. Play three notes, then pause for a moment; play another three, then pause again; repeat. (During the pauses, position your hands so they’re ready for the next note.) It’ll feel more relaxed, but it also helps improve your physical technique.
- Scales à la mode Tired of bouncing around the Circle of Fifths? Break out of the major-minor rut and try some colorful modal scales. Pentatonic scales (including blues scales) are especially helpful for jazz and rock musicians who want to work on their soloing or improvisation. Up for a challenge? Try the chromatic scale, which has every single pitch.
- Interval Training Hey, keyboard and guitar players: Why not add a little harmony to your routine? Instead of practicing scales an octave apart, play them a third or a sixth apart. Not only will the harmonies sound cool, the change in hand position—sort of like brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand—is also an intense mental exercise.
- Attack and Release Remember, you’re making music—don’t be afraid to add a little style to each note. Connect notes for a smooth legato sound, or tap out staccato notes. String players can try mixing in different bowings like martelé and detaché. Brass and woodwind players can experiment with different breathing techniques to practice volume control and tone quality.
*We’d be remiss without a nod to Charles-Louis Hanon (1819-1900). His work The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises is the undisputed pianist’s handbook for scales (and all sorts of other exercises). It’s a golden investment for any musician.
–If you like this post you might also like How to Play Jazz Piano. Click here.
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