Practicing Scales on Autopilot?

Are you practicing scales on autopilot? Perhaps you turn on the metronome and then tear through them as fast as you can to get them over with for the day. There’s nothing interesting about practicing scales after all, is there?

If this is what you think, you are short-changing yourself. Practicing scales or anything else on autopilot, without engaging your powers of observation and problem-solving, is only minimally productive. And it is boring!

Here are some things you could be improving in your scale practice, besides speed!

Fluent, relaxed finger technique, full, relaxed inhale, tone quality and consistency, articulation, rhythm, intonation, air management, dynamics, musicality, posture, alternative fingerings, beatboxing techniques. . . . . what am I forgetting? Probably at least a half dozen other things.

Here are some recommendations of what to listen for the next time you practice scales.

1. Tone first, always. Everything is a tone exercise! Each and every note must be as beautiful as the one before and after it. Any inconsistency in the sound is caused by an inconsistency in the air or the fingers. Listen for it, diagnose the cause and eliminate it. Keep the beautiful stuff going through every note!

2. Intonation, always. Good intonation and good tone go together, so improve the intonation and the tone will also be improved. Are you stretching your octaves by going sharp as you ascend the scale or flat as you descend? Set your tuner or other drone generator to the keynote of the scale to use as reference, then tune each note of the scale to that drone. Then play the scale at a medium tempo and work on landing the keynote (or tonic) perfectly in each octave. (Great for arpeggio practice, too!)

3. Articulation. Use your scales to practice as many different articulation patterns as possible. Staccato, legato, slur, air only attacks, double tonguing, triple tonguing and every variation you can think of. Do a different pattern on each scale, then tomorrow rotate the patterns so you practice different ones on each scale.

And as in the tone exercise, make each and every articulation at least as good as the one before it and the one following. If a note doesn’t ‘speak’, stop and figure out why. What is keeping the air from getting to the flute so that the note speaks clearly?

I’ll skip going into practicing with a metronome for evenness and speed because I assume you are probably already doing that. If not, then please do! What I’ve described will help you form a good foundation for productive scale practice. You can expand on them to include much more, but the most important thing is to always be engaged and actively listening and problem solving as you practice. This makes practice much more productive and hopefully endlessly interesting. So switch off the autopilot and put your scales to work!



Sir James’ Scale Challenge

Have you heard about Sir James Galway’s scale practicing challenge? It has been the buzz of his forum for weeks. He has challenged all flutists who are willing to put some serious work in to go through Moyse’s Daily Exercises method book with him. He has pledged to do the practice routine prescribed in the book every day, no matter where he is, and wants others to do the same. Neat, huh?! Can you imagine yourself practicing the same exercises that this legendary flutist is doing every day?

I have to admit that I got so enthusiastic that I jumped the gun and started right away. Turns out that the challenge didn’t get started ’til Sept. 26, but I figure that I might miss a day here and there so I’ll probably finish along with everyone else. These are some pretty rigorous exercises, and if I hadn’t worked through them before, I would probably be pretty intimidated to try it now. You start out with basic scales, then work through ever-widening intervals and iterations of broken chords. It is a terrific workout! I believe that working on the wide intervals is one of the keys to developing a flexible sound that is consistent in all registers.

Copy and paste this link into your browser, it will take you to a video of Sir James demonstrating why and how to practice these scales.

This could be some of the most important practicing you ever do!