I don’t know about you but I’ve always hated practicing scales.
Playing scales has always filled me with dread.
Because in many ways, I think scales are the hardest things to play well.
They’re the simplest things to play and also the most difficult because they expose every flaw, every uneven shift, every out of tune note, every bump in the bow.
Which got me thinking…
What if scale practice can be meditative?
I think a lot of scale practice is traditionally for skills building: developing a technical foundation that’s important for making your left and right hand technique smoother and easier.
That said, I also think there are ways to make playing scales a part of your wellness routine, to set you up for feeling better about your playing and therefore, can make playing feel more fun and enjoyable, rather than stressful and difficult.
Lately, I’ve been sharing these exercises with my students, and I’ve noticed that they are having more calm and fun with scale practice, and developing a stronger sense of “play” in their playing.
Three Ways to Make Scales Feel Like Meditation
Choose Your Own Note Lengths
When I was taught scale practice, it was always with a pre-set number of notes per beat. Like, set your metronome to 60 and play whole notes first, then half notes, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc. And while this can be useful and productive, here’s are gentle preview steps that might get you feeling more open minded:
a) Set a drone and metronome.
If you’re playing G Major, for example, set a drone that matches your open G, and also set your metronome; I think 60 is a good place to start.
b) Play the notes for as long as you like.
Start playing your G Major scale, one or two or three octaves (or four for that matter), but instead of focusing on intonation of shifting or whatever else you might normally spend time one, listen to your tone and the quality of your sound. And instead of listening correctively, see if you can listen with curiosity. As you’re playing, as yourself, Do I feel the sound in my body? What do my fingers and hands feel like as I’m playing? These questions will help you decide when you *want* to change notes rather than when you *have* to change notes.
The key here is to play the notes as long or as short as you like, with a focus on your own curiosity about the sound and your enjoyment in the sound you are making. Ask yourself: do I like this sound? What happens if I try different things with the sound? When might I use these different sounds in my repertoire? This is an important skill to develop in discernment and pleasure, and your ability to assess your playing for more than just technical precision.
c) Notice what’s beautiful about the sound you are making.
We spend so much time being super critical of our playing. Instead, kean into beauty. Take this time through your scales to notice what you like about the sound. Listen for overtones and if you feel like it, you add vibrato, or try changing the sounding point so that you have a more luscious or floaty sound. Pay attention to your perception of pleasure. When you notice yourself judging things, just note “oh hello, Judgement” and let it go.
2. Sending Your Sound
This is an exercise I learned from the great pedagogue, Donald Weilerstein.
a) Set a drone and a metronome but again, you pick the note lengths. Play the notes for as long or as short as you like.
b) Next, pick a corner of the room, up near the ceiling. As you’re playing your scales, imagine that you are sending the sound up towards that corner. Imagine the sound spiraling up, spinning and spinning.
c) Notice the difference between the sound when you send the sound in a direction versus when you don’t. See if it is more helpful to keep your eyes open or closed for this exercise.
3. Choose Your Own Adventure/Notes
This is a variation that is actually a very simple, very gentle, improvising exercise. If you’re afraid of improvising or feel like you don’t know how, this can be a really easy way to give yourself a little room to try.
a) Again, set your drone and metronome but just to keep a sense of time, not to restrict you in your note lengths.
b) Pick a scale.
c) The rules of this game is: play whatever notes you like but every note must be on a different string. Notice how you can surprise yourself with whatever combination of notes that please you.
d) If you like, after a while, you might start playing with rhythms, too, varying the note lengths. The only “rule” is that every note should be on a different string.
c) Other variations:
You can change the rules: say you have to play one long note and two short ones, or change strings every two notes, or change positions every two notes, or whatever. The main point is to try to have fun with this, and get a little bit looser in playing scales.
A final note:
The point of all of these exercises is not to do them correctly but to increase your sense of your own agency. I think sometimes, in classical music, things can feel a little prescriptive: you have to play these notes in this order in this time signature and you can’t change anything. Instead, let’s see what happens if we can change our approach, so that we can play with more curiosity instead of judgement, and trying to shift our priorities from perfection to pleasure in our practice.