Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

Why Practice Scales and Arpeggios?

One of the very convenient things you can do to learn playing violin, or any instrument for that matter, is to use practice drills. There are just so many things to consider while learning to play a musical piece – the key, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, the musicality, the expression and so on. Although you can learn everything there is about playing violin just by practicing several pieces, musical pieces by themselves don’t make very good learning exercises. There is just too much to think about when learning them, and it can be distracting if you are not clear about your objectives.

That’s where practicing scales come in. In a technical sense you can consider them musical pieces too. I personally love the C harmonic minor scale. Scales are much simpler than your average musical piece and yet offer an abundance of learning opportunity. You can focus on a different characteristic of the sounds as you play scales – different techniques of your instrument, different aspects of your hearing. And you can do each of it in an isolated environment.

What to Practice?

Take the D major scale for example. In a few minutes, you can learn what notes construe the scale. After that, you can use the scale to practice intonation. You can use the scale to learn perfect fingering. You can use the scale to practice rhythm. You can use it to practice slurs, staccatos and legatos. Almost, if not everything you can learn about your instrument. If you’re so inclined, you can simply purchase one of the numerous scale practice books and work at it the first few minutes of your daily practice. But, I’d rather invent my own scale practice routines. It’s fun. Some examples follow –

  1. Practice legato. Legato means to play the notes without any noticeable break between them. It’s not like a slur – you have to change bow direction between notes. But you have to make it smooth and unnoticeable as reasonably possible.
  2. Practice slurs. Play the scale with different slurs. Two note slurs, then three note slurs, then four note slurs. Even a full octave slur.
  3. Practice rhythm patterns. You can either make up your own rhythm patterns or you can pick a small number of notes from one of your favorite musical pieces and play your scale notes in that pattern.
  4. Practice instrument techniques. There are techniques unique to your instrument and you can use scales to practice them. Playing the scale with pizzicato for example.

What about Arpeggios?

Arpeggios aren’t very far from scales and they might even seem redundant. But there still is merit in practicing them because these little broken chords are common patterns found in a lot of classical (as well as modern) music pieces. Practicing patterns like these build more foundations into your muscle memory. The more foundational techniques you commit to your muscle memory, the more your mental bandwidth is freed up for expressions and other techniques. You might not specifically analyze your sheet music and single out these subsets from them, but your mind knows. As you practice all these patterns in different techniques (staccato, pizzicato, legato etc.), your mind will start working with sets of notes, rather than individual notes. Helping you play more easily and comfortably as you progress.

There are also other neat gains from practicing sheet music. It reinforces learning key signatures and automate you playing the right sharps and flats in your music pieces. As a beginner, you can even use it to reinforce your note recognition and sight reading skills. It is noted that several acclaimed musicians still practice scales (even after becoming very skilled playing their instrument) to hone and maintain their talent.

Ideal Time to Practice

The ideal time to practice violin. Well, it’s right now. You can practice for a few minutes instead of reading this article. When you get back to this article later, again, read those last two sentences.

Okay, if you broke that loop and landed on this next paragraph, you’re probably looking to create some sort of discipline and commitment for your practice. Good for you. If you create a schedule and stick to it, there’s definitely more chances of succeeding. Especially if you’re a self learner. But you already know what anyone would say to this – “There is no ideal time. It’s specific to you and your lifestyle.”. So let me not say that same thing. If you don’t want to think about anything else and just want someone to tell you an ideal time for practice so that you can begin somewhere, let me tell you. The ideal time for practice is early in the morning. Get up, brush your teeth, drink a big glass of water, clear your bowels, eat a snack (or a quick breakfast) then do your practice. There you go. You have your input – now go create a commitment and stick with it.

You’re still reading? Are you sure you’re not procrastinating by reading internet articles instead of practicing? Okay, if so, then the early morning thing isn’t probably working for you. Or you wonder whether it will. In that case we only come back to the most common answer to this – only you can decide the ideal practice time for you. But what I can do is to give you some pointers to decide on your practice time.

Your Energy Pattern

Some people are full of energy when they wake up, get tired through the day and go to sleep exhausted of that energy. Some people hate to wake up, feel lazy and uncommitted in the morning but they turn productive as the day progresses and get exhausted by the end of the day. Yet others are slow and groggy when the sun is up, but late at night, after everyone else is asleep, their engine starts running at full throttle. So what’s your deal? When do you feel most productive? It’s good to keep your violin practice at this time. At least when you are just beginning and playing the violin itself hasn’t become a rewarding pastime yet.

Your Lifestyle

Do you have a 9 to 5? Going to work or school? Almost everyone has to reserve about 8 hours for their main gig. If you don’t great, your practice time can be anywhere. But if you do, what I find good is keep your practice time a bit far from that 8 hour block. For example if you need to start to work at 8 AM, and you wish to keep your practice in the morning, do it at 6 o clock rather than at 7 o clock. If you get back home at 6 PM in the evening, and wish to practice in the evening, keep your practice at 8 PM rather than 7 PM. If violin playing is your full time pursuit, then you should be looking beyond all this – make violin practice your 8 hour main jig and plan other things around it.

Your Priority

Take a realistic look at how important violin playing is to you. Are you pursuing it as a career? Are you playing to improve your personality? Are you playing to impress someone? Assign the time accordingly. If your office work is your most important thing in your mind, playing violin after you finish work is better. You will feel more relaxed and focus better. If you still want to practice in the morning despite your day job or school being most important to you, device some sort of wrap-up mechanism to free your mind. For example, at the end of the day, make a concrete list of things you have to do at work tomorrow. That way, in the morning when you are about to practice, your mind is not occupied with thoughts about work – you already have those jotted down.

Finally, Make it a Habit

By “making it a habit” what I mean is build it into your routine rather than assigning it a fixed time on the clock. For example “I will practice after I eat my breakfast” or “I will practice before I go to bed”. Rather than “I will practice at 6 PM”. If you do this, it will be easier to build as a habit because that’s how our minds are wired to think of habits. Something that follows (or precedes) some other already established habit. Always chain your habits. That way you don’t have to rely on motivation or will power for your practice. It becomes just another habit in your daily life.

Photo by Phillip Flores on Unsplash