Scales and Birthday Parties

There are two things I tried to avoid actively as a child – practicing scales and attending birthday parties. I always dreaded going to birthday parties for no good reason. I always made up my mind that they would be dreadful – although I can’t think why. Anyways, I’d get an invite and I’d try to think of all sorts of ways to avoid going to it. Ofcourse my mum would make me go – my excuses, creative as they were, never fooled her. Sure enough, I’d grudgingly go to the party and end up having blast and coming home with a smile.

Scales are the musical equivalents of those birthday parties for me. I disliked learning them and came up with all sorts of excuses to avoid playing them. And then ofcourse, the more I avoided them, the more dreadful the image of them became. And thanks to lack of practice, they didn’t sound great when I did play them which only reinforced my dislike of them.

But I finally hit the point with beginning my journey of Beethoven Sonatas that no amount of Bach or any other composer could justify avoiding scales altogether. So, I finally my prejudice aside, and confronted them with an open mind in the safe space of practice. I began playing them – slowly, leisurely, with careful thought behind each finger and note. Lo and behold, very much like those birthday parties I so harshly misjudged, they turned out to be the complete opposite of what I imagined them to be once I actually played them.

My biggest excuse so far was to deem them being exercises that would bore me to sleep. Granted, scales are not exactly music masterpieces, but they aren’t quite as boring as I thought either. One of my favourite quotes on playing scales is by Rubinstein:

Scales should never be dry. If you are not interested in them, work with them until you do become interested in them.

I took that advice to heart. The point of scales is more mental than physical and keeping the mind engaged is important. For me, this means practicing scales in different ways. On the first day I decided to play scales again, I stuck with plain old C major and kept myself engrossed in it for a good half hour. Satisfied with it in unison? Comfortable with the finger positions? Try contrary. Then alternate between unison and contrary motion to keep it mixed. Once that was easy, I switched it up and again tried playing it in thirds. Once I was satisfied with that, I switched to playing it in sixths. Then move on arpeggios or broken chords – you can see how this list goes on. By the time I had learned to play it in thirds and sixths, half an hour flew by and I barely noticed.

Fast forward to to day, I have moved beyond C major and now play the entire circle of fifths. Some key signatures are less intuitive than others – my personal kryptonite was F# major in contrary motion. While playing them, I feel as though I’ve got to know the key signatures much better – and not just how many sharps or flats they have – but their quirky personalities and the moods they bring. That is one of the greatest advantages of playing scales – getting to know to each key in its entirety.

So far, my fingers have certainly benefited from playing scales and I intend to keep it up – but Rubinstein’s advice still guides me through it all. They aren’t meant to be flown through to see who has the fastest fingers – they are just as much exercises for the brain as they are for the fingers!

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