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The Truth About Violin Scales

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably practiced scales at some point in your life. You’ve probably also been told that you should be practicing them more. A bit like flossing, the topic of violin scales comes up during violin lessons usually in question form:

"Have you been practicing your scales?”

But why should we practice violin scales? What good does it do to repeat a boring routine day after day? Not much, actually. 

click here for free sample violin lessons from Richard Amoroso!

There is a time, when you are first learning violin scales, that you should build a routine that has real consistency. This is so that you can get familiar with a standard finger pattern, and with the proper spacing of the intervals.

But once you are confident that you can get through a 3-octave scale in the 24 major and minor keys (not as hard as it sounds, since you can use one basic fingering for them all), you need to start mixing your violin scales up! The possibilities really are endless: bowings, articulations, speeds, rhythms, parts of the bow, vibrato...it’s enough to fill several violin lifetimes.

See, the more your violin scales resemble etudes, the better. You should use scales to work on specific weaknesses and to maintain certain core skills that should never be neglected. For example, the ability to smoothly connect notes with the right and left hands (vibrato) will always be critical. So some of your scale and arpeggio practice each day should be slow enough that you can hear the smooth connection. You should do this both slurred and with separate bows.

But too many people only practice their violin scales slowly! Think of how many pieces and excerpts contain fast scales, both slurred and separate. That should be part of your daily maintenance as well. Double stops, especially thirds and octaves, fall under this category as well.

My own violin scale routine is based on these ideas. I start with single-note scales, on separate bows, then as I get faster, I move to spiccato, and finally slurred. I don’t play a certain number of notes on each bow, but I aim for my changes to be inaudible. I play arpeggios both separate and slurred, with vibrato, until they get fast enough to cut out the vibrato. At this point I go to different keys, so that I hit maybe 3 or 4 in a day. I move on to double-stop scales, focusing on thirds and octaves since they help build the hand frame so efficiently.

I may at this point go back and repeat some of the single-note scales and arpeggios, increasing the tempo further and focusing my ear on the slightest bumps or uneven notes. Finally, I have some weaknesses that I remember from the previous day’s practice. I’ll either incorporate them into a scale or move on to etudes that build up those weaknesses. In this way, the scales and etudes blend into one another. 

But here, each person’s violin scale routine begins to diverge. Perhaps you’re not very confident with your spiccato. Well, practice most of your scales in spiccato, with varying speeds! Use the metronome for part of that time, to make sure that you’re absolutely even. If your spiccato is great, then how about your ability to play marcato in the upper half of the bow? How about smooth, quiet bow changes at the frog?

These are the kinds of challenges that crop up in solo playing and in orchestra auditions, and you must master them sooner or later. Scales could be your most efficient way to do it.

Remember, every ten minutes that you focus on a weakness during scales is worth an hour’s practice on that same weakness in a piece. I often see people bang their heads against the wall (figuratively, I hope!) trying to “get” a certain challenge in a piece or excerpt. If they just extracted the difficulty and put it into a scale, they’d save themselves so much headache. Expand the possibilities of your violin scale routine and watch your playing take off!

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Richard Amoroso is a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and teaches online violin lessons at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons!

 

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