Why Do We Play Scales? | Flute Practice Tips
I know you know how important it is to practice scales. We want agility and dexterity in our fingers, we want to create muscle memory, we want to work on a clear tone in all registers, and maybe most of all, to recognize patterns in our music.
Musicians who don't spend much time on their scales almost always struggle with learning music efficiently and without too much frustration.
"It is conceivable that through practicing enough melodic and harmonic 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."
- John Krell in Kincaidiana
Through practicing enough patterns, we build a reservoir of technique so that instead of reading individual notes, we are recalling patterns that we deeply know. Krell also writes about how important it is to refine finger technique in the early years of playing. (Intermediate players, hi!)
Almost more important, Krell writes, “thoughtful repetition is the key to facility.” It’s not just about spending hours DOING scales, it’s about THOUGHTFULLY practicing and creating quality muscle memory.
I often find that when people think scales are boring, they also feel like there is a limit on the way they should practice them. Usually, there's a specific aspect they dread. For example, the need to play everything at once, the fear of making mistakes, the lack of variety, the difficulty of high notes, etc. (To be fair, those are all valid!) Fundamentals themselves are non-negotiable, but the way we approach them is entirely flexible, free, and LIMITLESS. We can always change things up to suit our needs.
Here are a few ways to change things up:
Instead of playing everything at once, play a few scales in between tasks: stirring the pasta, walking around the house, doing homework, sending emails, etc.
If you're avoiding them out of fear of mistakes, you're probably going too fast! Slow them down.
To avoid monotony, change the rhythms, the articulations, or the dynamics for each scale to give your brain something new to think about.
If you're worried about high notes (or low notes), turn your scales into a long tone exercise to work on fingers and tone.
Here is another great quote relating to consistent, devoted practice as musicians:
"To focus on technique is like cramming your way through school. You sometimes get by, perhaps even get good grades, but if you don’t pay the price day in and day out, you never achieve true mastery of the subjects you study or develop an educated mind.
Did you ever consider how ridiculous it would be to try to cram on a farm, to forget to plant in the spring, play all summer, and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest? The farm is a natural system. The price must be paid and the process followed. You always reap what you sow; there is no shortcut.”
- Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
This quote is so closely related to our flute practice. As musicians, we can’t cram practicing. We can’t just practice a piece we’re performing and expect it to go smoothly without having an established practice and strong understanding of flute fundamentals. The seeds need to be planted early on and watered daily.
Music is a language and scales are the vocabulary words. We have to know the vocab to play fluently.
Looking for a scale refresh? The Intermediate Flute Scale Book, made for 6th-12th grade flutists, adult amateurs, woodwind doublers, and flute teachers, is now available as an ebook and as a physical book.