Scales can suck…but they don’t have to!

Flute scale practice

Have you ever looked at your scales and felt demotivated or uninspired? That tackling scales was simply just too much for you today and you’d rather just start with the pieces waiting for you behind the scales book? Well, that is normal. And completely expected.

As a beginner, foundational music theory and concepts can be challenging because they all seem to be a bit too much. While it’s totally okay to feel overwhelmed, here are a few tried and tested ways to make learning and practicing scales feel more natural.

Let’s begin!

A change in perspective

First, we’ll have to gently shift how we think about scales. Our brains are designed to think in and recognize patterns. If you read, knit, do maths, and remember to lock the front door before bed every night, then your brain is doing what it does best: helping us make our actions efficient by doing them in a pattern.

Scales are patterns too! You can think of them as the words that make up a piece of music. And just like in language, there are different letter combinations (notes) that work together to build different words (scales). Motivation to practice scales runs out because there’s little understanding about scales as logical patterns that can help us read, learn, and memorize music more easily. For example, if you can identify an eight-note run in a piece of music as G major or E minor instead of looking at it as eight individual notes, so many aspects of music become easier.

Our brains have less information to process, we are able to sight-read better, learn the music more quickly and it becomes easier to retain the information from one practice session to the next. Understanding WHY you need to practice your scales is the first step to staying motivated in your practice.

Scale your fundamentals

You can think of scales as a tool in your practice repertoire. You can use them to improve various aspects of your flute playing. Of course, just practicing your scales, even mindlessly, is going to help build your technique. But we can use them to practice so much more than that. Scales can become vehicles to improve many aspects of your playing. This will not only make playing your flute more enjoyable, but it will also support your musical growth. Scales can help improve your:

  • tone
  • breath control and support
  • articulation
  • finger evenness and control
  • finger speed

When you mindfully use your scales to work on other areas of your playing, you will start to see tangible progress. This is important because as you advance in your music journey you will tackle longer pieces with more complicated rhythms and keys. You might even be performing for an audience! So establishing strong fundamental skills like smooth movements, good breath control, and reliable tone through practicing scales will improve your performance security. There will be fewer things to worry about and more time to enjoy your music as you play the piece!

Scale your practice

By now you may be very motivated to practice your scales and you know exactly WHY you need to practice them, but the next question is HOW? For example, there might be a session when you have a lot of scales to cover but don’t know where to start. Having a system for your practice is very helpful and there are a few options available to you. You could decide to start with the easier keys and work your way through the circle of fifths, pairing the major and minor keys. So for example, you could start with the F major and then move to D minor, then go from Bb major to G minor, and Eb major to C minor, and so on. You could do one scale each week and then move on to a new scale the next week or you could progressively add more and more scales to your list. You could use the Royals Schools of Music of Trinity Schools exam syllabuses to guide you on which scales to practice.

What is important to know, is that you do NOT need to practice all your scales right away. You also do not need to play all your scales in two or three octaves yet. As you develop you will move to more complex keys and play your scales in two and three octaves, but start small and simple and allow for it to grow.

Approach with a growth mindset and celebrate your wins

Scales can be tricky as you work your way through them, so it’s important to keep a list of your struggles and problems while practicing! This list can help identify what you need to work on in future and where growth is still needed. Remember that practicing your scales is a long-term project and you cannot expect to get it right in one practice session. The goal is not to perfect the scales, the goal is to use the scales to help perfect you! In this way, you will continue to learn and grow from your scale practice for many more years to come.

Struggling with your scales? Tatiana shares the 5 top challenges and solutions you may face when practicing your scales.

Remember that music is not about absolute perfection. Music is an expressive, human thing and deserves to be enjoyed. So celebrate your progress every day, and note your weaknesses in a constructive way so you can start working to solve those problems.

Need some good motivation to whip your scales into shape? The Flute Practice has a course designed especially for musicians who want to learn their scales and improve their playing!

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