Practising scales

For some people, the mere mention of “scales” leaves them feeling depressed, anxious or just confused.   But since music is made up of scales, we should feel comfortable with them.  Whenever I teach or play scales, I think it’s important to have a clear idea of why you are playing them.  So why practise scales (and arpeggios)?  Here are my tips for making the most of your scale routine:

Find a decent scale method or three!

  • Moyse extended scales (Exercices Journaliers)

Up to top B and down to low C. Normal scales and scales in 3rds-8ves.  I find playing scales in 7ths slowly is very expressive and great for singing through large intervals.  There are also arpeggio patterns (dominant and diminshed 7ths etc).

  • Moyse – Gammes et Arpeges – 480 exercices pour flute

This book supplements the one above.  It is written in a fragmented way which enables the student to practise chunks at a time.  Especially good for finger technique since you can work on a two -four note pattern in isolation.   Written in triplets, which gives an extra challenge (to show triplets not duplets using stress and release “elephant”), but it also gives a directional flow to enable better phrasing.

  • Taffanel & Gaubert – Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mecanisme  (Daily Exercises) 

I usually practise these scales slowly to work on legato, phrasing, tone and intonation. I’ll talk about that below.

Use scales for:

  • Quality and evenness  of sound

Practised slowly, you can listen carefully to the quality of each note.  If played too fast, you can hide a number of errors in a wash of sound and won’t know what to fix.

  • Legato

Sustain the core of your sound from the bottom to the top and back again.  You can practise flutter tongued to ensure your air is always supporting the sound.  Also practise singing and playing for resonating and throat tuning.

  • Articulation

As suggested in the books, use a variety of articulations to add another dimension. If practising slowly, keep the articulation light- don’t let the tongue become heavy. Also, detached doesn’t mean short and slur doesn’t mean clipping the last note.  Be articulate in your articulation, but also be musical.

  • Dynamics

Practise in every dynamic, ensuring your piano scale has the same quality of sound as your forte scale.  Make sure high notes are not ear-splittingly loud and low notes are not weak or colourless- aim for a balance.

  • Intonation

Taffanel & Gaubert EJ 1,2 and 4 are especially good for intonation.  Look at the example below from EJ 1.  We need to raise the perfect 5th, so follow the shape of the notes with your lips.  When it comes to the diminished 5th, we need to lower it.


+^ = raise the pitch         V = lower the pitch

  • Understanding key relationships and the keyboard of the flute

Take your time on each key.  Don’t try to play all the keys in one week.  Try doing 3 keys in a week.   Or, if you are more advanced, do flat keys one week, sharp keys another.  I like Sir James Galway’s image of getting to know the flute like a stranger on the bus.  If you only say hello to him, you can’t say you know him.   Here’s a video of Sir James Galways playing scales rather superbly:

  • Phrasing – “Take me to the top”

Wibb often talked about his lessons with Jean-Pierre Rampal on Taffanel & Gaubert scales.  Rampal always said to take the phrase “to the top”, even if it was made up of just 2 notes.   And apparently Moyse often likened the modulation in T&G scales to a nice glass of wine – our scales should give pleasure like a good glass of red wine trickling down one’s throat.   The words to EJ 1:  “Take me to the top and then back down”!  Here is a violinist who knows how to use scales to make beautiful music:

  • Finger technique and coordination 

Make sure fingers are coordinated with the tongue.  Often messy articulation is due to fingers pressing the key too late- think finger first.

  • Breathing

Playing a Moyse extended scale in one breath is not terribly difficult- playing it twice or three times? Bit harder! Don’t force your breathing, but just monitor how far you get everyday.

  • Tone colour and character

Every key has its own colour.  Experiment with different shades and then set a character to play in.  E.g G major- happy! Play detached mezzo forte with a bright colour. You can add different rhythms too (dotted, swung, syncopated etc).  I had a great experience learning scales in this way at Jonathan Snowden’s masterclass.

  • Style

I do this with the Moyse 480 book.  Play the triplet patterns in a romantic way- for example, a lush/rich colour with sustained sound and long phrases like Wagner!  Then contrast it by playing in a Mozartian way. Light, with freshness and energy and clear sense of metre and stress.  Great to do before approaching repertoire.

Be creative-  improvise

Add trills or other ornaments to scales. Use your imagination to make your scales more challenging and interesting.  In the Moyse 480 book, try alternating octaves to give yourself a challenge- remember to give the first note of each triplet stress- don’t bump out the high notes.

Moyse 480

Memorise and read

In exams we should play scales from memory- this is good because you familiarise yourself with your “keyboard” and keys.  It’s also good to read scales to practise reading at a fast pace, looking ahead.

Practise in chunks

If you find a particular pattern of notes difficult, for example C-D   or high register fingerings, don’t play the whole scale, but isolate the difficult part and practise in chunks.

I hope you found this useful.  Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

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