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A Guide To Practicing Scales - Six Tips

Improve your scale playing. For all instrumentalists.

Six detailed tips for practicing scales that will improve your playing by varying your practice routine. A complete guide!

A man practicing scales on the piano.

Why you should practice scales:

Right from the early stages of learning, practicing scales is a must. Scales each have their distinct use of finger numbers. If practiced regularly, these finger patterns become second nature, which helps with the playing of pieces. We can find scalic patterns and broken chords in the majority of compositions. Being able to play these patterns instinctively is crucial to all instrumental playing. Another reason why practicing scales is a must is to become familiar with all the different key signatures and the scalic patterns within these keys.

Keep in mind:

You must always try to achieve the best sound possible and put expression into everything you play. You should be focused on every detail and practice mindfulness. Even when practicing scales, you must imagine playing the most beautiful music, with the most fantastic sound on every note. Listen carefully to yourself and occasionally record your scale playing so that you can listen back to your playing and hear details you may have missed while practicing.

Before listing your six tips below, remember;

- be patient when practicing.

- learning music takes time.

- it should be fun.

- have clear goals for each practice session.

- regular practice is vital.

- create variety in your practice routine.

- put expression into everything you play.

Being able to do all the scale practicing tips below, will be proof that you master your scales.

Tip #1 - Create a Variety

Mix things up. Play your scales legato, staccato, ascending, descending, with contrary motion (for pianists), and play them at different speeds. It is essential to practice slowly at first. Only if you sound perfect at a slow speed should you go faster. Build speed gradually. Practice all the different scales: Major, Minor (natural, harmonic, & melodic), and Chromatic. Set clear goals for yourself.

" Don’t play it until you get it right, play it until you can’t play it wrong.

Tip #2 - Different Rhythms

Play a scale ascending and a different rhythm descending. Practice using entirely different rhythms to make sure you really master the scales. Use, for instance, the following patterns:

- one 8th note with six 16th notes. (two octaves)

- one 8th note with two 16th notes. (two octaves)

- two 16th notes with one 8th note. (two octaves)

Be inventive and create more rhythm patterns for yourself.

" Practice as if you were performing.

Tip #3 - Think Beat

One of the biggest mistakes is not thinking/feeling beat while practicing scales. Everything you do in music should be linked to the beat, which helps produce an even sound and rhythm. It enables you to progress faster as the beat impulse you send to your brain organizes the notes into groups, making it easier to play. If your brain does not get the beat impulse, it perceives the scales as just very long rows of notes with no organization. If you "think beat" and put the notes in, for instance, groups of 2 or 4, things are organized and much easier to grasp.

" Even professional musicians started out as beginners.

Tip #4 - Dotted Rhythms and Triplets

Try practicing your scales with dotted rhythms and even with triplets. It challenges your mind and is another step towards better control. Use a metronome to keep the rhythms going.

" You practice and you get better. It’s very simple – Phillip Glass

Tip #5 - Dynamics

Be very creative with dynamics. Start soft, make a long, gradually stretched crescendo to the top note and come back down, making diminuendo. Do the opposite. Practice your scales in even dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between.

" We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Tip #6 - The three-times rule!

Can you play the scale three times without mistakes? This is the golden rule. Give it a try; it works!

" It is performance ready if you can play 3 times without error. If you mess up on the 3rd run through, you have to start over.

Do you need further help practicing?

If you got inspired by this and would like more tips on practicing music, check out these blog posts:

Thank you for reading!

Feel free to leave a comment below.


About the author

Robert Boer is a music educator with over 30 years of experience in the field of music education. He is the owner and director of MusicTutorOnline and teaches piano and music theory at MusicTutorOnline. After studying at the Conservatory of Music in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, his music education career took him all over the world, teaching students of all ages and backgrounds. 

More writings by Robert Boer:

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