Gamify Your Scale Practice

It can be difficult to stay motivated when practicing scales – they’re so tedious! But what if we change the way we think about scales?! Here’s a quick introduction to gamification and seven of my favourite ways to gamify my scales

It’s so easy to become discouraged when practicing our scales in our flute practice. Everyone from beginners to advanced players can struggle with scales. Either we get completely demotivated by the sheer tedium of their repetitiveness or we just can’t seem to make progress with them and end up feeling defeated by fingers that just don’t want to co-operate.

I wish I could say, ‘Forget ‘em! You don’t need to practice your scales!’ But I think we both know I can’t. Scales are the foundation of all our music – everything you will play is just a collection of scales and scale patterns…

And unfortunately that means scales are the musical equivalent of eating your vegetables. We all know they’re good for you, but nobody likes them. (No one like Brussels sprouts, don’t lie!)

But… what if we change how we think about our scales? Just like you might hide those veggies in something tastier to make them more palatable, we can trick ourselves into LIKING our scale practice.

Instead of slogging through our scales because we know we have to, let’s turn them into games. Not only will we become motivated to practice them more so that we improve much faster, but we’ll also – dare I say – have fun practicing them!!

“What is this, witchcraft?” I hear you say! Nope, this is just the idea behind gamification, and this trick can unlock your scales for you and have profound effects on your technique and general mindset!

What is gamification?

At its core, gamification applies elements of game play – such as competition, rewards, and challenges – to activities or tasks that may not inherently be fun or engaging. This concept has become big in the business and marketing world, but it can be used on a personal level to help with boring tasks like exercise or chores… or scale practice! The idea is to create a sense of play that encourages engagement.

Why gamify our scales?

By using the built-in incentives of game play, we can introduce a sense of fun into what would otherwise be repetitive technical work.

By adding game-like features such as points, levels, and rewards, gamification creates a sense of accomplishment and progress, which in turn encourages continued engagement and participation. It is a powerful tool for increasing motivation and improving learning outcomes.

I’d put money on the fact that you’ve had at least one time in your life when you got completely lost in a game. Whether it was video game, pretend game, or board game. Maybe you stayed up way past your bedtime because you wanted to get to the next level of Legend of Zelda, or you whiled away an entire 1.5-hour train ride with Candy Crush.

Just think if you got that lost in a scale game and spent that much time practicing your scales???

We’re more productive when we’re having fun!

This is because when we are having fun, we experience positive emotions like happiness and excitement, which can help to improve our mood and increase our energy levels.

Gamification takes advantage of this by shifting our focus away from the repetitiveness of practice. Instead, we concentrate on the positive experience of the incentives and rewards. This means we are more likely to do necessary, boring technical exercises that we’d normally avoid.  Mindset is everything!

But are we actually learning if we’re having fun??

Whoa. I’m going to stop you there. There is this unfortunate conception that classical musicians have to be stuffy, boring savants if they want to get anywhere, and that music education should be a gruelling and unpleasant experience (think of the movie Whiplash…).

I can’t tell you how much I hate this idea. IT’S ALL A LOAD OF CROCK! (And don’t even get me started on how damaging the idea that music teachers have to break their students down to get the best out of them creatively is… oooh that one really gets my goat. Perhaps, that’s another blog for another time…)

Yes, of course we do have to work really hard in our practice (especially if you want to reach a professional level), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed enjoy ourselves along the way!! And to top it off, there are so many studies out there that have proven that learning in a creative and fun way actually helps us retain more information, and (it bears repeating) gamification motivates us to practice more… so how is that a bad thing??

So… how can you gamify your practice?

The first step is to identify what you need to gamify. Figure out which exercises you struggle to practice – either because you find them too boring to actually do them, or you find so them so difficult that you instantly get demotivated. I’d guess most of you would say your scales fall into this category, but there are probably some of you out there that feel your tone exercises are the main culprit (…that certainly would have been me in the old days!).

Now that you know what needs the zhuzhing up, add some element of game play to them. Use dice or cards, create a points system, race against the clock… anything!

Get creative! The possibilities are endless! And remember, the goal is to have fun!

Some of my favourite scale games to play

While I hope that you’ll be inspired to head off into the wilderness of the practice room and make up your own games, here are some of my favourite ones to play with. You are free to steal these ideas or simply use them as inspiration to come up with your own!

Game 1: Michel Debost’s Gamme Game

Most flute players will already be familiar with this one, which comes from Michel Debost’s book The Simple Flute. Gamme is French for ‘scale’ – see what he did there?? – and this exercise is based on #4 from Taffanel & Gaubert’s 17 Grands Exercises (p16 here).

You can find a scan of the game from an old Flute Talk magazine here. And here’s a diagram of T&G’s exercise #4 pattern to help with memorisation (I highly recommend you memorise these rather than read the exercise from the book).

The idea is that you pick one key and one pattern and move down the list (so key #1 with pattern #1, key #2 with pattern #2 etc). Once you reach the end of the keys, you repeat, but continue with the patterns (key #1 with pattern #31, key #2 with pattern #32 etc). Once you reach the end of the patterns, you start again, offsetting the pattern by one (key #1 with pattern #2, key #2 with pattern #3 etc)

Back in the stone age, I used to keep my printed scale game in a plastic sheet and use dry erase markers to mark my progress. But these days there are so many fun ways to track it on tablets or in digital versions. I highly recommend Jolene Madewell’s fabulous Scale Game tracker for fellow spreadsheet lovers out there. It’s so colourful and pretty!

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love a spreadsheet more than most, but I imagine many of you out there may not find this a very fun game. So why not add an element of chance?? Use a random number generator (or shuffled flash cards) to choose your scale and again for the pattern.

Or maybe a sense of accomplishment will help: make a spreadsheet of the game (I know… spreadsheets again. If you’re allergic to spreadsheets you can create a hand-drawn table or tracker) and if you play a scale beautifully, colour the cell green. If you play it OK, but with a few mistakes, colour the cell yellow. If you play it with several mistakes or flubs, colour the cell red. See how green you can make the spreadsheet!

Game 2: Face the Music Card Game

This game uses a regular ol’ pack of cards. Separate the Jacks, Queens and Kings from the pack – these will be your 12 chromatic notes. Decide which card equals which note (probably best to write them out).

Then create a set of rules for each of the rest of the pack. You can get as complicated as you like – so many all 2s mean tongued major scales at a certain tempo, or maybe the number, colour and suit could all indicate different things.

GAME PLAY: Draw one face card and one card from the rest of the pack. Play the scale as the cards indicate. If you play it flawlessly, set both cards aside in your ‘Points’ pile. If you play the scale OK (with minor issues), replace the face card at the bottom of the pile, but keep the other card for your Points pile. If you are unable to complete or make significant mistakes, place both cards in a ‘Penalty’ pile. The aim is to have more point cards than penalties by the end of your practice!

Game 3: Musical Twister

Turn the Circle of 5ths into a spinnable wheel (think Twister). Flick the spinner to see which scale you should practice.

For an added bonus, use a colourful Circle of 5ths and make each colour represent a silly rule – like dark blue means sing and play. Then spin once for the scale and again for the rule.

Just don’t forget to practice both your Majors and Minors as most Circle of 5ths have the relative majors and minors within the same pie slice.

Game 4: Act it out!

Try practicing your scales in different moods. Channel your inner actor!

What a C Major scale sound like if you played it angry? Sad? Lazy? Mischievous?

For an added challenge, try to think of the most random mood or emotion you can think of. The sillier the better! How does one make a scale sound ‘dorky’? Or hungry??

For this exercise, try to imagine how you would say a sentence in that mood/emotion. What inflections do you use? Do you let the words bleed into each other, or are they bouncing and short? Do you speak fast or slow? Try to mimic these with your playing!

Game 5: Rock’n’scales

Use a backing track while you play your scales. Find a rock beat loop (like this one) and channel your inner rock star! Or don some cool shades and funk up your scales with a funk beat (like this one)

Or play around with drones – I personally love an Indian tambura drone (like this one), which you can often find in any key.

Game 6: Dicey Scales

Use dice to help create a sense of chance in your practice. You can find specific musician’s dice with notes or rhythms on them, or you can keep it simple and create a key for regular dice – especially helpful when you have a handful of scales you need to brush up on for an exam.

You can easily buy larger D&D-style dice these days, so maybe find a fun, colourful 12-sided die to cover all your notes.  

You can make it even more exciting with more die! One for scale, another for speed, another for rhythm… etc).

Game 7: Make a board game!

For the more creatively minded of you out there, take this game idea even further and create a full on board game! Because why not???

You can choose to either reinvent a game that already exists, by either changing the rules or various elements. You can play a single player modification of this game, or with 2 or more players if you are lucky enough to have a practice buddy!

Or, if you’re feeling up for it and like getting creative and crafty, create a brand-new board game! Don’t make it too easy though – think about how boring easy games are. We only enjoy it when we’re being challenged (and funny thing, we learn our scale better too!).

Get creative with your practice!

I hope you’ve found these games inspiring and found at least one that you think will help add a new element of fun to your scale practice!

And please feel free to use any of these games as a springboard for your own ideas! I’d love to hear all about them!

Now… get out there and have fun!

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