Don’t Bail on Your Scales

Why do we need to practice scales? Even if you play just for your own enjoyment, scales are crucial to your development as a flautist. Here are six reasons why

Scales and arpeggios are fundamental to anyone’s flute practice. But admit it; they’re boring and you often skip practicing them. After all, why bother with scales and arpeggios if you’re just noodling on the flute for fun? Why can’t you simply focus on the piece you enjoy playing and ignore tedious scale work?

Questions like these are enough to rile up some music teachers. But … it’s a fair question. So let’s take a deeper look. 

Do professional musicians practice scales? Absolutely. Even the most proficient and acclaimed artists know the value of honing their fundamentals. But do you really need to whip out all those boring scale exercises if you just want to learn the flute for casual play? 

The real question is: “Why wouldn’t you?”

Scales, arpeggios and scale patterns are essentially cheat sheets. They are the building blocks of the music you want to play just for giggles and kicks.  The more you understand and practice them, the easier playing will feel. And that could only make your joy of playing greater.

So here are six reasons why practicing your scales is so incredibly valuable for any player—even the casual ones.

1. All music is made up of scales and scale patterns

Literally all music. While some experimental 20th century music on the fringes might challenge that statement, it’s true. Even if you’re playing non-Western music, you’re still using some sort of scale or modal system to build your composition, such as Indian ragas or Middle Eastern maqam. 

This means that scales are the foundation of the music you want to play. And just like the foundation of a house, if it isn’t built properly and solidly before the rest of the building is placed on top, the entire structure is in danger of falling apart. Solid technique built through regular practice will help keep that foundation strong.

2. Understanding scales will help your pattern recognition

Think about it this way: without learning and practicing your scales to lay down that foundation, every time you play a new piece, you’re having to learn EVERY. INDIVIDUAL. NOTE. Do re mamma mia, that’s a lot of notes.

But if you if you know and understand your scales, the music will suddenly make more sense. It’s like you learn to see through the Matrix. Music is just an ordered collection of scales and scale patterns. 

It’s like if you stand too close to an impressionist painting all you can see random dots without a sense of order. But if you stand back, the painting comes together and makes sense. Without understanding your scales, you can’t see the order to the larger picture.

As John C. Krell says in Kincadiana: “It is conceivable that through practicing enough melodic and harmonics patterns, we program them into a subconscious reservoir of technique so that we do not really have to read new music, but rather to recognize and call up what we have already played and perfected.” (p25)

In other words, give your brain the tools it needs to navigate a tune—automatically.

Understanding our scales demystifies much of the music we play. Suddenly that crazy run in the music you’re learning is nothing more than a simple major scale. Or another tricky bit you’ve been struggling with is just a string of broken arpeggios. 

3. Practicing scales builds muscle memory

What exactly is muscle memory? It’s when your body remembers how to do something with you having to think about it. Muscle memory is what lets your fingers type really quickly without looking at the keyboard (or for the younger contingent out there, it’s what lets your thumbs text swiftly without thinking about every single letter). 

Muscle memory is a skill that your body learns over time through repetition. It’s what athletes or dancers use to perform complicated movements. Through that repetition, it’s like the movement gets hardwired into our bodies, so that the muscles know what to do without having to focus their attention on making that movement. 

It’s like having a separate brain in your muscles that remembers movements without you having to tell them what to do every time. It’s pretty cool, right?

As flute players, we use lots of muscle memory, from how we hold the flute to the precise movements of our embouchure. 

Practicing our scales helps to build the muscle memory of those patterns into our fingers. And remember, if all music is just a collection of scales and scale patterns, this unlocks the ability to play much of this music on autopilot… Sounds like a good deal, no?

4. Practicing scales is aural training 

While we’re busy training our muscle memory, we’re also training our ears. The more we play scales and chords (arpeggios) the more familiar we’ll become with how they sound. This means it will become easier to pick out the different kinds of scales (major, harmonic minor, chromatic, etc) and their key patterns (ascending and descending scales, arpeggios).

Scales also help us hear the relationship between intervals—a semitone is easily recognisable as the leading tone of a scale and the difference between major and minor thirds are easier to spot when you’ve thoroughly practiced your major and minor scales. We may not all be lucky enough to have perfect pitch, but certainly our scale practice helps us develop our relative pitch!

5. When you recognise those patterns, memorising becomes so much easier!

Again, practicing your scales is a bit like you’re learning to see through the Matrix. Now, when you look at a piece of sheet music, instead of seeing a random selection of notes, suddenly all these patterns start to appear.

For example, in the above excerpt from Ian Clarke’s Hypnosis, there are a lot of notes across this run of 32 notes (split into 10, 10 and 12). Memorising each one of those notes could take some time. But if you’ve practiced your scales and arpeggios, you’d easily recognise that as simply a two-octave Emin7 arpeggio. Boom! Memorised.

6. Scales offer an easily definable marker of your progress 

Finally, let’s be honest, one of the best reasons to practice our scales is because they offer us a very easy way to track our progress. Slowly adding known scales to our list is great, but also marking how easy or comfortable those scales at different speeds can be is a great way to note how far you’ve come. 

This is a prime example of when keeping a practice notebook is very handy. Every time you practice, note down what scales you practiced and at what tempo, and how comfortable you felt doing them. After a while it will be clear how quickly your scales are progressing!

Scales don’t have to be boring

So, as you can see, there are lots of reasons to practice our scales, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling like boring work. If scales make you scowl, check out my other blog for some suggested games that can help spice up your scale practice.

And happy fluting!

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