Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

Since beginning this blog in mid-August I have spent a disproportionate amount of time covering topics related to practicing playing fundamentals. Disproportionate, that is, in terms of the number of words written on that topic compared to others, not in terms of importance. Just as I promised in my first post, in many of the early posts here I have discussed key aspects of my approach to brass playing, and a consistent, disciplined method of practicing playing fundamentals is really at the root of what ability and success I enjoy as a brass player.

Today’s post will, if all goes according to plan, be the last one (at least for a while) addressing daily playing fundamentals work. While I have made passing reference to scales and arpeggios when discussing daily routines, in practice I have always considered them as something of an addendum to the “daily routine proper,” if you will, rather than as a part of the routine itself. Perhaps that is because the selection of scales and arpeggios that I practice changes each day while the “routine proper” does not, or perhaps it is because scale and arpeggio practice has unique functions beyond the mere development of technical proficiency. Or, maybe considering them separately is simply a quirk of my way of thinking. In any case, today I will discuss why we practice scales and arpeggios, which scales and arpeggios to practice, and how such practice should be carried out from day to day.

Why Practice Scales and Arpeggios?

When exhorting students to practice scales and arpeggios more faithfully, I am always candid with them about one thing: practicing these patterns is often boring. While there are perhaps ways to “spice things up,” there is no way to entirely avoid the sense of dull repetitiveness that comes when playing the same patterns day after day, month after month, year after year. Of course, just because something isn’t always fun doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, and practicing scales and arpeggios regularly is worth doing. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Audition preparation. While one is a student, at least, performing scales and/or arpeggios is a big part nearly every audition that a person will take. This being the case, a thorough mastery of these patterns—mastery that comes only from daily practice even when an audition is not immediately “on the horizon”—is needed. When serving as an audition judge, I can usually tell which students make scales and arpeggios part of their practice “year round,” which ones practice them only when the audition is close, and which ones neglect them almost entirely. Those in the first group get the highest scores. Those in the last group don’t make the band at all.

2. Development of technical facility. Scales and arpeggios make great “technical exercises.” Mastering these patterns well enough to play them quickly and with various articulations makes one’s playing technically efficient in any context, and is especially useful when taking auditions which call for scales and arpeggios.

3. Development of extreme ranges. While my favorite exercises for range extension involve slurring up and down the harmonic series in every slide position or fingering combination, adding “extra octaves”—both higher and lower—in one’s scale and arpeggio practice is an excellent way to further refine and develop one’s playing in extreme registers. While one might not always want to play the extra octaves in live auditions and performances, playing these in the practice room promotes strength and efficiency throughout the range of the instrument, and over time not only will one’s range of “possible” notes expand, but one’s “middle range”—that is, the range that one is most comfortable playing—will expand, as well.

4. Promoting good intonation. Because each scale and arpeggio pattern centers upon a primary reference pitch (or “tonic”), conscientious players will learn to adjust the tuning of each note in an exercise so that it sounds best in relationship to that tonic note. Over time, one learns to apply this skill when playing “actual music” in addition to scale and arpeggio exercises, and even begins to do so unconsciously. Younger players especially can become too dependent upon electronic tuners to tell them when their pitch is good or bad. While such devices have their place, when they are relied upon too heavily it is easy to develop the fallacious approach that I call “tuning with your eyes.” Music is an aural art form. It’s good when it sounds good, not when the readout on a machine looks good. Daily scale and arpeggio practice is one effective way to refine one’s ability to hear, recognize, and produce good, in-tune playing.

5. Improving sight reading. When we first learn to read the written word, we begin by learning the alphabet, and then as those letters and their sounds are mastered we are introduced to simple words. At first, we “sound out” each letter in those words in order to discover what they are, and over time we develop a repertoire of words that we immediately recognize without processing each letter individually. Over the course of months and years of reading this repertoire of words expands, and our ability to read and to understand text becomes more developed.  Music is very much the same way. At first, we have to read each note individually, perhaps even separately processing the note and its fingering before moving to the next note. As we learn and master scale and arpeggio patterns, though, we begin to recognize these patterns when we encounter them in music we are practicing and performing, and instead of reading each note individually, we process and execute those patterns as groups. This makes our music reading much more efficient and accurate, and is especially useful when sight reading.

6. Improving understanding of music theory. I often say that the modern educational system is too compartmentalized. Students so rarely make connections between, for example, history and literature, and yet perceiving these connections is vital to a complete understanding and appreciation of both disciplines. Within music, I think that sometimes students learn their scales and arpeggios once in the music theory class, again in the ear training class, a third time in the piano lab, and yet a fourth time in their applied lessons on their major instruments—all without fully comprehending that these are the same scales and arpeggios. With a little help from their teachers, students can begin to see scales and arpeggios not only as technical exercises, but as a practical application of the “building blocks” of music itself. They will hopefully then begin moving to the place where their understanding of music theory informs their playing work, and their practicing and performing likewise informs their work in the classroom. Developing comprehensive musicianship is a great thing!

2. Which scales and arpeggios should I practice?

The short answer is, as many as possible! Most players devote far too little time to mastering these patterns, and fail to learn enough of them. In most states, high school musicians learn major scales and a chromatic scale for all-state auditions and the like, and in some the major arpeggios are learned as well. This is well and good, but with just a bit more scale and arpeggio practice each day so many more patterns can be mastered. Here are my suggestions for expectations of different ages of players. I am assuming here that the players involved are practicing on their own outside of ensemble rehearsals and perhaps even taking private lessons.

Middle school: all major scales and chromatic scale. I have included in my daily routine handouts for beginning students (trombone, bass clef euphonium, treble clef euphonium, tuba) all twelve major scales and a chromatic scale. All are written only one octave with the exception of the F major and chromatic scales, which are written two octaves. My limited personal experience with middle school students tells me that they can learn lots of scales when we only ask it of them. I once had an entire class of beginning low brass students playing five of the twelve major scales and the chromatic scale. Had they continued this study into the next year, they could have learned all twelve scales early in their second year of playing. Remember that, at first, students don’t know what is and isn’t “hard.” Teach them as much as you can before they “know” that what they are doing is difficult!

High school, young college, most adult “weekend warriors:” all major and minor scales and arpeggios, chromatic scales, modes. A high school student that strives to learn all of the major scales and arpeggios can, with only a bit of effort, master the relative natural minor scales simply by starting the same scale on the sixth. From there, adding harmonic and melodic minor scales and minor arpeggios shouldn’t be difficult. The Remington diatonic pattern scales (called “revolving” scales in my scale/arpeggio routine handouts for this level—trombone/bass clef euphonium, treble clef euphonium, tuba) not only promote mastery of a given scale/key regardless of the starting pitch, but offer a “backdoor” way of learning modal scales, as well.

Older college, graduate, professional: as many scale and arpeggio patterns as possible. The more patterns you have mastered and internalized, the more skilled a reader and interpreter of music you will be. In addition to the above, work on “odd” scales like pentatonic, octatonic, and bebop scales. In addition to triads practice seventh-chord arpeggios and perhaps even ninths, etc. Extend known scales to wider and wider ranges. My scale/arpeggio routines for this level (trombone/bass clef euphonium, treble clef euphonium, tuba) are fairly comprehensive, but even they can be taken as simply a starting point for the curious and dedicated student.

How should I practice scales and arpeggios?

While younger players can reasonably be expected to practice all of their known patterns each day, as one masters an increasing number of scales and arpeggios practicing all of them daily becomes logistically challenging, and eventually impossible. My response to this has been to practice every scale and arpeggio I know in a single key area each day, and to move systematically (rather than randomly) through each key area from day to day. For example, today I practiced all of my B scales and arpeggios. Tomorrow I will cover C, then D-flat, etc. This way, I cover every scale and arpeggio I know at least once every twelve days. I have found that this allows me to maintain a high level of mastery without allowing scales to dominate my practice time.

However you choose to organize your scale and arpeggio practice, make sure that, as with the “daily routine proper,” such practice is undertaken deliberately, systematically, and daily. I can’t promise that it won’t get boring from time to time, but I can promise that the benefits are more than “worth it.”

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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