How to get students excited about practicing scales

Each week of teaching, I usually notice a theme emerging. Sometimes, it relates to a specific playing technique. Other times, it’s a challenge my students are experiencing in their practicing sessions or their attitude towards practice itself.

It was interesting to see during my first week back in 2019 where students had focused their time during the 3 or 4 weeks of holiday break. Not surprisingly, most had spent the majority of their time on repertoire. When I asked them to play the speed scale routine (2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24 to a bow) and speed arpeggio routine (3, 6, 12), most were unprepared.

It occurred to me that students continuously underestimate the value of practicing scales. Haha! That’s definitely an understatement. They understand the concept that practicing scales is necessary, but I don’t think they really believe it makes as big a difference as it does in their overall progress.

Everybody knows that scale practice helps intonation (if done well!), but I also think students need to develop facility in their shifting and accuracy in bow division through the speed scale routine mentioned above.

This semester’s challenge will still focus on playing with a tuner, working to raise percentages over time. Students practice scales at home in four rounds:

1. With a drone

2. With the tuner

3. Speed scale routine

4. Speed arpeggio routine

During step 2, I have the students record arrows above the notes for higher or lower finger placement, as indicated by the tuner. They should then backtrack one pitch and replace the finger according to the arrow. During the lesson, I have the tuner on, but I don’t let them look at the tuner. I use the app Tonal Energy Tuner, because it shows a percentage of accuracy. They CAN use the “arrow map” they created during the week, however. I want to see how much the drone and tuner practice improves their ability to play in tune.

During the fall semester, we focused on scales with the tuner and I recorded anyone’s percentage publicly who topped the former week’s winner. By the end of the semester, the highest percentage had gone from mid 50’s to 75%. A good amount of improvement! And students were really motivated to see if they could make it on the leader board.

This semester, I will record the percentage each student achieves at the lesson, as well as giving a score of 1, 2 or 3 for the speed scale/arpeggio routine. 1=incorrect fingering AND incorrect bowing (basically you get a point for effort), 2=incorrect fingering OR incorrect bowing, 3=Both fingering and bowing correct. At the end of the semester, there will be a prize for the highest average percentage and highest speed score combined. The speed score points are like money in a board game: every 3 points equals one victory point. I will also give an award for each playing level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. I’ll give updates throughout the semester for those interested in following along. I’ll also give commentary on whether I think it’s improving the overall quality and facility of my students on their scales.

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