In this article I am going to outline how you can benefit from scale practice without falling into the trap that so many guitarists make…
Scale practice is probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think of practice and technical development. The idea that practicing scales makes you a better musician seems to be universally accepted yet in the case of the classical guitar the concept of scale practice seems a little misunderstood.
before I get to the big mistake people make, let’s have a look at why scale practice is so useful.
Benefits of Practicing Scales
Scales on the classical guitar combine several elements of technique into one process.
- Right hand alternation
- Left hand shifting
- Left hand independence
- String crossing
- Tone production
- Fingerboard knowledge
And the list goes on…
In fact, out of all the exercises you might use on the classical guitar, scales provide the most efficient synthesis of technique. It is that synthesis that is so special and it it something that we don’t always find in other exercises.
Scales can provide almost all of the technical challenges found in repertoire but they allow us to work on individual elements away from the music. In this process we can prevent ourselves from treating pieces of repertoire in a “technical” or “mechanical” manner.
The big mistake
Scales occur frequently in music written for violin, flute and piano but they rarely appear in the guitar repertoire.
A full octave scale is actually quite hard to come by in much of the literature and when there is a long scale passage in a piece of repertoire, it stands out partly because it is so rare. Examples include the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, Capricho Arabe by Tarrega, and Fantasia para un Gentilhombre again by Rodrigo.
Another famous example is the Bach Chaconne, however, this piece was originally written for the violin.
Violin and piano repertoire is absolutely littered with virtuosic scale runs that span genres from the Baroque to the present day. So it makes sense for those instruments to incorporate scale practice into their routine for the sake of repertoire demands.
For us, though, it does not make a lot of sense to practice scales in preparation for the occasional scale run that pops up in a piece of repertoire.
So why do we practice scales ?
Scales are tools.
They are simple frameworks that we can use to hone in on specific technical elements. Once those elements have been worked on in isolation they can be incorporated into music making, which is the ultimate goal of any technical work.
Without a specific focus to practicing a scale then the time is wasted without any goals being reached. The scale itself may become familiar and fluid but seeing as there are few actual applications of a scale in a piece the process really is, pointless.
Be clear about what you are working on
Before you start practicing a scale you need to assign a goal and function for that particular scale.
One function might be to practice crescendo and diminuendo another could be to practice staccato articulations yet another is a variety of rhythms.
Here is an example of a scale incorporating dotted rhythms and crescendo/diminuendo:
The ways to use a scale to work on technical aspects is almost as diverse as your imagination and to inspire you I have added some specific examples for you below:
Alternation with “p i”
One example of a specific way to use scale practice is to develop fluency in different right hand alternations. More often than not we us i and m in alternation and they have proven effective for many people. Other finger alternations can have specific sounds, speeds and articulations so it can be worth your time to investigate other options.
Left Hand Pressure
In a similar way of focusing on very specific aspect of technique we can work on left hand pressure through “buzzing” scales:
An extended list of practice goals for scale work
Here are some suggestions on how to apply goals your scales:
- Crescendo / Diminuendo
- Terraced Dynamics: pp,p,mp,mf,f,ff
- Dotted Rhythms
- Triplets with duplets
- Groupings of 5,6,7
- Lento, Andante, Allegretto, Allegro, Presto etc.
- Accents (place accents on different notes)
Right Hand Fingering
- im, mi, ia, ai, ma, am, ami, mia, ima, pima, amip, pi, ip etc.
Left Hand Fingering
- Fixed fingers
Scales are fantastic. They combine many elements of the left and right hand techniques and we can add infinite variations to cater scale practice to our specific needs. Just be mindful of the common pitfall; mindless practice of scales that go up and down without any thought or purpose.
Use them as tools to hone in on technical or musical issues.
Be very specific as to why you are practicing a scale. Speed, sound, accuracy, articulation, dynamics etc. these are all techniques that can be worked on with scales. As I said, the classical guitar repertoire doesn’t actually have that many large scale passages, so simply practicing a scale to be able to play that scale has little use in music making.
Your free scale book
In the scale book that I have written I aimed and providing sound fingering that will instill a logical manner to move around the fingerboard. In addition I took great care to structure the scales in a systematic way that would aid the student in acquiring fingerboard knowledge and also understand how scales relate to chord shapes.
If you would like to use the free scale book to accompany this lesson, please download a free book of scales to practice every day: