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I'm wondering if you're ever "done" or do you just go practicing them forever?

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    Don't we first need to define what is meant by 'advanced musician' before we can answer this question? – Brian THOMAS Dec 5 '17 at 12:52
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    I think it depends on what you mean by "practicing" scales. I would say that "advanced" musicians can play all the scales they're interested in quite proficiently without needing to focus on improving these scales. But they remain essential as warm-up exercises, and it's also important that the musician doesn't lose their mastery of scales. – Kyle Strand Dec 5 '17 at 17:15
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    Our band director told us that it was essential to practice them. If you went into his office at an unexpected time, you were likely to hear him playing them on his clarinet, so I think he practiced what he preached! – Cort Ammon Dec 5 '17 at 18:10
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    Does every advanced musician practice X every day? No. Unless your definition of advanced is circular, so that it requires practicing X every day. In both cases I answered your question title in the literal sense. – Ye Dawg Dec 6 '17 at 19:57
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    There's a wonderful interview with Eubie Blake when he was 93 years old, wherein he described how he still practiced scales every day: npr.org/2012/10/19/123385170/eubie-blake-on-piano-jazz – André Paramés Dec 8 '17 at 14:10

11 Answers 11

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My father was a French horn player for the New York Phil and later the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was a rare day when he didn’t go down to the basement and play a series of scales and arpeggios, sometimes for extended periods.

I talked to him about it, but years ago so I can’t tell you if the following thoughts are his or mine:

There’s a lot of repetition in music. If you’re getting paid to play a set, you’d better find what you love about that set, or you’ll burn out. I think practicing the fundamentals is a way of setting your mind to the task of getting past the mere rote of practice and finding the infinite depth within. When you play a complex piece, there’s always something to work on right at the surface–a difficult passage, some dynamics, some phrasing. But when you play fundamentals you focus on deeper stuff: pure tone, vibrato, subtle intonation choices, etc.

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    I like this answer because it suggests what the professionals are seeking to get out of practicing in this way, not just whether they do or do not. – Cort Ammon Dec 5 '17 at 18:17
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    Very interesting comment. Perhaps I need to spend more time with technical exercises and less with actual music! – BobRodes Dec 5 '17 at 18:19
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    My father was the Principle Bassoon in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for almost forty years, and he did the same: daily practice of scales and arpeggios. – Alex Basson Dec 6 '17 at 3:11
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    My friend's a concert violinist and describes himself as a "scale-aholic" and was able to name like, three different resources for scale and shifting practice from memory. Crucial practice, it seems, maybe like a kata. – user46105 Dec 6 '17 at 16:21
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    @manglano Kata is probably a great analogy. I've often said that musicians are the western martial artists. – BobRodes Dec 6 '17 at 19:29
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I'm told that my great-grandmother, a professional pianist, practiced her scales for some hours each day. I don't think that you're "ever done," unless you've decided to quit playing.

As with any sort of athlete, you have to practice to keep your skills sharp, and scales are one of the best exercises to do. You could probably substitute other exercises, but scales are an important part of most music. Practicing scales will make scale passages in music quick to learn.

Liszt was said to practice his exercises while reading a book, as did others. Most of the great musicians spend some hours each day on technical exercises. (Horowitz was something of an exception; he was said to practice no more than a couple of hours a day most of the time.)

Finally, here's an amusing story, very pertinent to the subject, that Itzhak Perlman tells of his first meeting with Heifetz at age 14.

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    Practicing scales will make scale passages quick to learn. -- What do you do about the non-scale passages? – Robert Harvey Dec 5 '17 at 19:37
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    @RobertHarvey Learn those too! There will always be something in a piece that doesn't conform specifically to the technical exercises that you work on. However, spending time with exercises will make anything easier to learn, just from the repetitive process of making notes happen. – BobRodes Dec 5 '17 at 20:29
  • How? If I knew, I would be a better pianist than I am. – BobRodes Dec 9 '17 at 19:02
  • Scale work is especially important for strings, seeing as their intonation is not given, they have to work extra hard to get the muscle memory to the stage where they do not play false. – Neil Meyer Jan 12 '18 at 6:48
  • @NeilMeyer Yes, I can see why; a millimeter one way or the other would cause a real problem in intonation, and as the string gets shorter as you move up the fingerboard, the fingers have to hit progressively closer together. A lot to think about! In piano, the first major problem is that you have to "walk and chew gum at the same time," so to speak. The hands are both doing something completely different from one another, and remembering just which finger to pass the thumb under, and which to pass over the thumb in the opposite hand, at which time, is a struggle. (...) – BobRodes Jan 12 '18 at 16:21
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Supposedly Heifetz said, "If I skip practicing one day, I notice the difference. If I skip two days, the critics notice. If I skip three, the public notices."

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    Not sure why this was downvoted – xerotolerant Dec 5 '17 at 1:19
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    This answer does not specifically address scales. Give me evidence that he was referring specifically to scales, and I'll retract my downvote. – Dave Dec 5 '17 at 1:22
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    This may have been better as a comment. Good quote, tho. – AJFaraday Dec 5 '17 at 15:41
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    I heard the quote attributed to Horowitz, but it does sound rather more like Heifetz. – BobRodes Dec 5 '17 at 18:18
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    The user Equinox refers us here to show that it may have actually been Jan Padrewski. – Richard Dec 7 '17 at 0:36
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When i was at high school we had one particular violin teacher whose morning ritual was to do 10 mins of scales as soon as he got into his teaching studio. I know that all of the music staff also maintained a habit of regular scales & arpeggios, but Mr. F's habit was most conspicuous. Scales & arpeggios provide a great way to warm up one's instrument & finger/lips/tongue/hands.

So no, you're never "done" with the basic technical exercises.

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Famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz did not do it as per one of the interviews he gave. He said that he did not like the mechanical approach. Practicing should be musical and not mechanical. He considered scales as rather mechanical.

Also pianist Andras Schiff says what he does is to play some piece from Bach instead of any sort of finger exercices.

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    That may be, but I can say with complete confidence that both of those individuals knew their scales very well (see this and this for an example), so they practiced them, probably treating them as beautiful music while they did so. – BobRodes Dec 6 '17 at 2:29
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Playing an instrument is a physical skill, just like gymnastics, football, athletics or stage magic. No-one would think that Usain Bolt would stop training after he became world record holder and still expect to win races would they?

I think that it is the same with an instrument. You need to maintain the skill, the dexterity and, in some cases, the breath control as well as keeping the flexibility and hand/foot/breath co-ordination.

Scales are one of many ways to do this but they are a fundamental part of any instrumentalists technique so to stop practising them would be, in my view anyway, a mistake.

I don't think that practising scales is ever a waste of time.

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I'll also note that from the angle of an improvising musician, practicing scales and arpeggios moves the mechanics of getting from note to note into your muscle memory, and this makes it much easier to improvise, as you can think "I want to play this" and your fingers/lips/etc. know how to do it without you having to concentrate on the physical details.

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    "without you having to concentrate on the physical details" great point! – foreyez Dec 5 '17 at 20:54
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    I have been lucky enough a few times to have reached a point where the mechanicals took over and I was sort of watching my hand play something, correctly, without anything going on in my head but "I didn't know I could play this". Very odd sensation. – Joe McMahon Dec 5 '17 at 23:07
  • @JoeMcMahon "Channeling the Muse," if you would. – BobRodes Dec 6 '17 at 2:47
  • @JoeMcMahon "mechanicals took over" – for me that's something I definitively would like to avoid. I want to play what I want (as you say in your answer), not what I happened to practice recently (because that's fresh in the muscle memory). In particular, if some pattern seems too familiar to me, I will make sure to practice something that intentionally breaks this pattern. One should express himself/herself, not their practicing habits. – dtldarek Dec 6 '17 at 15:35
  • On the other hand, getting something into muscle memory means you are more likely to use that instead of true improvisation (something that few people want though). – Ye Dawg Dec 6 '17 at 20:01
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TL;DR:

You are never "done" practicing scales or arpeggios, but you can make this process more musical.

Longer version:

I still practice scales and I don't plan stopping. However, usually I do not play the standard major/minor scales, but rather random others (frequently artificial self-invented too). Same with arpeggios, rather than using standard major or minor chords I like to use "jazz" chords or even some weird-sounding combinations of notes.

Also, there are some very nice "spiced up" scales, arpeggios and other passages in classical music, which you can use for practice. For example, my favorite warm-up exercise is the pattern taken from the BWV 847 prelude's Presto part – it fits nicely under all 5 fingers, and then you can play it mirrored (in upward direction) for the other hand.

Another thing I like to do is to play putting accents on different notes (e.g. as if playing triples, quadruplets, quintuplets, etc.). You can also play using different rhythms, but please make sure you are actually playing the intended lengths of notes, not some mangled/lazy/broken variation of it.

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For me as a guitarist they're an essential warm up exercise.

I start with the pentatonics across all shapes and positions, move on to the modes, then redo the modes using the sequence I've worked up for maximum speed. After that I'm usually warm enough not to make a fool of myself sweeping arpeggios.

Finally I play some little exercises I wrote to break out of cliches & sticking to one scale type e.g. up in a sweep, down in a pentatonic, up in a mode, back down in a sweep etc.

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Scales are a fundamental part of music, and so it's impossible to avoid practicing them. It's like asking if advanced football players practice running. Well... they've been running all their lives, so I hope they know how to run. But they do various agility drills, which involve various tasks while running.

I would say that advanced musicians don't practice scales for the sake of practicing scales (recalling the notes that make them up and actuating them on the instrument). But they practice lots of things, and what are you playing if not scales?

For example, I mostly play trumpet. One of the things you need to be good at is playing with the same ease in the high ranges as you do in the mid/low ranges. One of my favorite drills for this involves playing scales that bridge the mid/low registers with the high ones. So I play lots of scales, but not for the scales' sake.

I'm also learning woodwinds. One of the first things I do when warming up on clarinet is run through all 12 major scales, full range. I'm not doing it to remember what a G major scale is, I'm doing it to build muscle memory for common musical passages. I also run arpeggios and scales in intervals for exactly the same reason. I wouldn't describe the activity as "practicing scales", but rather "practicing clarinet technique".

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The famous pianist Alfred Brendel said in an interview, that he did not study etudes and scales after a few years of playing. He got his technique from real pieces. [Src: ZDF Heute-Journal 4.1.16]

protected by Dom Dec 5 '17 at 21:02

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