The Best way to Practice Your Scales Part 2-Understanding the Major Scale


This article us a continuation of The Best Way to Practice Your Scales Part 1. You may want to begin with that one, as this is a continuation of it and some parts may be confusing otherwise.

5. Improvement of passage playing-Whether playing Chopin’s nocturnes, a Mozart piano sonata, or improvising a long improvised musical line a la Bill Evans, we want to be able to execute the music with ease, prowess and musicality.

6. Improvising Skills-Let’s now watch another video. As you watch think about how they improvise new ideas and melodies in real time, with fluidity, ease, and spontaneity. Many people look to scale practice to build improvisation skills.

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about this, let’s examine how we can use scale practice to improve on your desired skill or area.

The Best way to Practice Your Scales

notes on a piano

Piano Keys

Though teachers and players would almost all agree that knowing your scales is important, 10 different players might have 10 different views on the “right way” to practice scales. For me, the first question is what do we intend to glean from the practice and study of scales?

In no particular order, we probably hope to achieve all or some of the following:

  1. Manual Dexterity.
  2. Familiarity with tonal centers (keys) and modalities.
  3. Manual and Aural fluidity (within keys).
  4. An understanding of harmony.
  5. Improvement of passage playing.
  6. Improvement of or foundation for improvising skills.
  7. Probably other things!

We can also think of what we are going to be playing and how scale practice might help:

  1. Classical Music (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven)
  2. Jazz
  3. Rock
  4. Blues
  5. Improvising in any of the above styles
  6. Boogie

Whether you’re a teacher, a student or a parent, you should spend a little bit of time thinking about this before going on.

Let’s revisit the first list and try to define the terms on it. As we go through it, watch some footage of piano players (or whatever your instrument is) and think about how the idea applies to what your seeing.  Youtube or any other video page may be your best source.

1. Manual Dexterity-The fine muscle movement of your fingers, hands, wrists, and arms, specifically with regards to playing your instrument. Think of the arch in the fingers as they strike and leave the keys. Be aware of the movement up and down the keyboard, fretboard or what-have-you.

2. Familiarity with tonal centers-What sharps or flats do you find in the key of F major? B major? D minor? E lydian dominant? Knowing the keys that you’re playing in and what accidentals they consists of is crucial for your conception, if you are to learn the piece deeper than by rote.

3. Manual and Aural Fluidity-Being able to hear, play, improvise and compose within a given key without hesitation.

4. An Understanding of Harmony-Harmony refers to two notes or more sounded together musically. In other words, chords! Since chords and scales are closely related you would need to know your scales well, before you can really learn your chords. Watch Bill Evans playing Autumn Leaves. Right from the beginning, you can hear how he must have a deep understanding of harmony:

After you watch this video, please go on to The Best way to Practice Your Scales-Part 2.

#3 Learning From Recorded Music


Though I will be talking mostly about jazz, this method works and has been one of the primary ways of learning most genres of music since the invention of recording devices.

I would recommend starting with something relatively classic and straight foreword. If you already have some records of your own that you like and find accessible, use them.

Great jazz records or artists to start with include:

Miles Davis
Bill Evans
Thelonius Monk
Billy Holiday
Count Basie
Lester Young
Louis Armstrong

Pick one or two records that you like and listen to them.

Firstly, listen in a general way… Trying to identify who you are listening to, what instrument/instrumentalist, what your general impressions are. If any parts strike you as particularly compelling, accessible, melodic, or if you find your self humming or tapping along to a certain part take note of which song it is and roughly where it is in the song.

Here’s where you go ahead and do it!

Secondly, listen in a specific way.
Now listen specifically for sections. Most standard jazz tunes follow a pretty straight foreword form.
Try to recognize, the intro if there is one.
Try to recognize exactly where the main melody begins.
Try to recognize exactly where the main melody ends and the first solo begins.
-Is this song in a standard form that you recognize (some are and some aren’t)

The reason I say try, is because this can sometimes be much more difficult than it would seem.

Tip: If the song is a standard and there are recordings of singers doing it, I would strongly recommend getting a recording of a singer doing it. Great singers of standard repertoire include: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Billy Holiday, Many more available on I-tunes

Things to keep in mind are:
-that many players play the first phrase of the solo before the end of the main melody (they overlap a little or the last phrase becomes a send-off for the beginning of the solo).
-The same is true for one chorus or section into another. Players often overlap these.

Listen to the one track over and over and over again and sing along with parts. For the beginning (this should take close to a week or more), sing along with the main melody/head and one chorus of solo. Keep singing along with it until you can sing it accurately (every note and rhythm perfectly).

Let’s use an example from our list.

Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Kind of Blue
Song: Freddie Freeloader.

Observations one could make with little or no musical background:
There is no intro. It goes straight into the main melody. The melody is repeated twice. Both are exactly the same but something sounds a little different at the end of the second time. (If you’re not sure what it is, listen again and ask which instruments are different. listen to one instrument at a time if you have to). Eventually you will find that the chords sound a little different the second time. This is good enough for now. Now you will notice that after the second repetition, there is some silence in the melody section followed by a piano solo.
The phrases are all nicely organized into breathable and singable phrases and at the end the first phrase of the second chorus, starts before the end of the first.

There are many ways to learn from recordings. Depending on your reason for choosing a certain recording, you might study it differently. The method I am presenting is a good start, because it develops your ears and your jazz sensibilities without the need or use of theory. I would recommend that you try this method (whether beginner or more advance), and see what kind of effects it has on you. And please, let me know any comments that you have.

At least a few days later…

Don’t forget to give each step as much time as you need. If you are going on to the next step, you should have put at least 3 days into the previous steps and as much as a week or more.

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