Learning Scales -
Overcoming the Psychological Roadblocks
by Helen Paskins
Freelance clarinettist and teacher
"I hate scales"
In my experience, this sentiment is one shared by the majority of students. This may be because it is thought that the average person may retain only about 4 different units in their short-term memory, which means that unless the scale is divided into two halves, it constitutes overload for the brain. (If this is true for you, then thinking of your scale in two halves can be a really helpful way to tackle them.)
Add to this the fact that when you play a scale incorrectly, because of the logic of the pattern, it is excruciatingly obvious that it is wrong. We hate to be wrong!
Fundamentally, scales are deemed to lack the magic ingredient - fun - although in my experience this viewpoint begins to alter once the scales are mastered, which would rather suggest that it is the feeling of failure which is the most de-motivating factor. How 'fun' they are is ultimately up to the person playing them. With a few dynamics or rhythms they can become much more creative and interesting.
Scales can be awkward on the clarinet. You can't 'see' them in the way that you can on the piano and there is no logic to the movement of fingers in many of them. Once you start to move beyond C major (in which the notes follow neatly, finger lift by finger lift), there can sometimes be a three-finger lift in order to move from one note to the next, which can seem confusing - until it is repeated enough times to become habitual and familiar. A difficult scale on the clarinet is not simply a question of one with many sharps or flats. In fact, some of these supposedly more complex scales actually lie quite well. It also has to do with how easily the transition from note to note works for the fingers in that key.
However, I think the main problem with scales is in the way that they are learned. Because they are annoying rather than fun. Because they are a chore and only done because they have to be - if they are practiced at all - and then people tend to adopt what I call the 'hope for the best' scales method. The steps of which are:
2. Hope the right notes come out
3. Noodle around until they do
There are many problems with this. The brain isn't actually actively involved, so even if the scale is performed correctly this does not necessarily mean that the why or the how has been understood, and therefore that it could be replicated. Normally, the scale isn't performed correctly and, unfortunately, this then means that the fingers become programmed with wrong turnings and for some reason - probably connected with Murphy's Law - the brain seems to be much better at remembering wrong turnings than right ones!
However, there is another way. I teach this to my students and encourage them to learn to recite it because it is a way to re-programme how they think about and approach scales. Do not be put off by the simplicity. My experience has been that it is the most obvious things that can be the most useful!
If these steps are followed, the scale will be performed correctly. Every time. It really does work. But only if you do it. In order to do it, you need to GO SLOWLY ENOUGH TO THINK. The desire to get them over with makes playing too fast to be able to do this properly a common pitfall. If you don't know what the right notes are, find out first. Check the key signature. Look at your fingering chart. How on earth do you expect to play them otherwise?!
This provides you with a correct scale once. However, the scale then needs to be memorised. CORRECT REPETITION is the key here. It may take ten times. It may take twenty times, but if you continue to work that scale correctly into your fingers then it will be learned and learned well and then you will find that it becomes enjoyable! It is playing scales wrongly, not playing scales, that is the real cause of the hatred!
To play a scale correctly you will need to know:
1. What it sounds like (aural memory)
2. Where your fingers go (kinaesthetic memory) - make sure you take care to use the correct alternate fingerings. Practice makes permanent. It is so much simpler to get it right from the start than to learn it wrong and so have to put it right later.
3. What the scale looks like on the page (so as to recognise it at speed) and what the key signature is so as to develop a sense of key (visual/intellectual memory)
This involves a lot of different types of 'knowing' simultaneously, but they all come as a result of following the steps given above.
So how can we make the repetition fun? The brain actually enjoys a certain amount of repetition, and while the brain is enjoying itself then you will be focused and productive. However, after a while the brain might start to make silly mistakes and this is a signal that it has switched off and stopped concentrating. How can we deal with this? This is when I like to bring in 'Scales Eye Spy'! On a long car journey we might look out for things to keep our attention off the fact that we are actually starting to feel a bit bored. We can do the same with scales. Five rounds of Scales Eye Spy could include:
3. dotted rhythms
5. legato and crescendo up/diminuendo down
The options are numerous and limited only by your creativity. The key is to decide on your goal in advance and stick to it. It might take you three goes to achieve your Scales Eye Spy task, but that's three more times you've played the scale without feeling annoyed and is very likely to have helped another area of your technique too!
This brings us to why we're doing all this in the first place. Scales are fundamentally really useful. They're not just some sadistic creation of the ABRSM to make learning an instrument more annoying. A colleague of mine describes them brilliantly as a language. Phrases or sentences which, once learnt, enable musical communication. Scales help enormously with sightreading and all the technical aspects of playing an instrument. They are a great way of working on tone and intonation and once learned become a fantastic way of warming up and checking the whole range of the instrument is working well and ready to go.
I'm not going to pretend that learning them won't take time and care but I do believe that if we make it fun and easy for ourselves then the process will be much more enjoyable.
Often, there is almost a moment of embarrassment when I spell it out like this because as soon as you think of scales in this way, it seems ridiculous to do anything else. But that is the beauty of it. It is almost as if the brain is loaded with an earlier version of the software we need. Our instinctive sense of how to learn a scale isn't perhaps the right one, but once we upgrade to the new method then we start to progress and as we begin to reap the rewards there is no looking back.
However, to my mind the psychological roadblocks extend much deeper than this. Take the Grade 7 or 8 scales requirement - ALL OF THEM! This sounds dreadful. Mount Everest. The fact that this isn't that many more than than for Grade 6 once you work it out, doesn't seem believable. The idea of getting them all learned feels insurmountable, so how can we go about it?
Firstly, it only actually takes five minutes to play every single major and melodic minor scale at the tempo 2 quavers = 120 or 4 semiquavers = 60. As soon as we know this, the psychological hurdle is greatly reduced. I suggest my students time their scales in order that they can see for themselves just how quick to play they actually are. It becomes harder to resent playing something when you realise it only lasts 30 seconds!
And for the other golden rule: ALWAYS USE A METRONOME. There are many advantages to practising scales with a metronome. The metronome doesn't lie. If you can't play the scale at that speed yet, it will tell you! This is actually really good to know. Always go at a comfortable tempo. The speed will come, as if by magic, once the scale is familiar and you will find it much more enjoyable to be beautifully in time and even. The satisfaction of doing something well is a great feeling and once you learn to achieve it as you practise your scales, you will find it a much more fulfilling and rewarding process.
So the final challenge is really one of goal setting. You need to be realistic. If you set a massive goal and fail it feels much worse than setting a reasonable goal and achieving it. Every time you feel successful, you will feel like doing more and this will then feed into more and more good results. With my students I have found that setting a challenge like 'all the majors chromatically E-Eb' is an enjoyable goal because it feels like a lot has been achieved, and there is a good feeling associated with doing all of something. Take care to go onto the minors though, because we are often tempted to stick doing what we know rather than branching out into what we don't know.
Are you serious about learning your scales? Then read all this again. Several times. It is not actually that complicated but there is a lot to take in. Each idea is important and they feed together to build a whole. I have been using these concepts with my students for a while now and they find them helpful. They're still human beings. It hasn't magically imparted the scales to them without any work on their part, but bit by bit they are getting there and when they are there, they relish the achievement - it's what the joy of learning is all about. Ultimately, we human beings are a funny breed: if it was too easy, it wouldn't be so much fun!
by Emerson Edition (E700) and available from June Emerson Wind Music here.
More information about Helen Paskins can be found here