Scales. Ugh. Just the word reminds most of us of the endless hours in the practice room drilling the same patterns over and over again for pages upon pages of scary black notes that seem to go nowhere (or for those of us that have memorized our scales, watching the clock to make sure we get our full half hour of recommended scale practice). Scales are to musicians what crunches are to athletes – monotonous but necessary for building and improving skills. I find myself rolling my eyes at any flute player that claims to “love” scales because often they are just saying that to impress/intimidate other flute players or trying desperately to make their students find some sort of intrinsic value in scale study. Let’s stop kidding ourselves – drilling scales is not fun. Okay – problem identified. Now how do we give scales the bit of sugar they need to make the medicine go down?
Many great flute players have devised ways to vary the way we practice scales in what has been termed “scale games.” As the name suggests, these “games,” or more appropriately, “lists,” assign different articulations and tempo changes for each scale from Taffanel and Gaubert’s Exercise Journaliers, No. 4. For those of you who are not familiar with the exercise, this is the standard exercise that most high school and college-aged flutists have come to accept as the preeminent daily scale routine.
It seems a bit cruel to associate a list (one that could be easily transferred into an excel-type spreadsheet) with a “game,” but there is a benefit to changing things up a bit to break up the monotony of scale exercises. Variety does, in fact, add a bit of spice to life. The most famous of these “games” is by Michel Debost, and known simply as the Debost Scale Game. In this exercise, each of the keys in Exercise 4 is listed with a corresponding articulation, tempo, and dynamic instructions.
Other flutists have paid homage to Mr. Debost’s Scale Game by expanding the list template and changing, or in some instances, simplifying the content. Patricia George’s version of the Debost Scale Game, for example, focuses on rhythmic variations by adding several rhythmic and articulation options to the mix:
Molly Barth has also revised the Debost Scale Game by adding new articulations and extended techniques such as singing and playing, pitch bends, inverted tonging, quintuplets, and septuplets. You do not need to practice all 60 variations every day (scale burnout, anyone?), but the addition of non-traditional techniques is very refreshing and just what we all need to spice up our scale practice:
I treat the scale “game” as more of a game than a list, gravitating toward a John Cage-like chance scenario. I use small sheets of paper to write different articulations and rhythmic markings and place all articulation/rhythm sheets in a Ziploc bag. I repeat this process with different dynamics placed in another Ziploc bag. At the beginning of my daily scale study, I select at random one sheet from the rhythm/articulation bag and one from the dynamic bag. This becomes my pattern for the day. To expand this exercise, I also keep another Ziploc bag with each scale name (ex C major, a minor, etc.), and another listing different tempo changes. I then proceed to structure my own Debost-style list for the day. The beauty of this technique is that the scale game is always changing! The downfall is that it takes a bit of time and organization to make the daily list. The bright side, however, is that I do not get bored with my scales.
Finally, I have developed a scale game for my students using an improvisational (re: game-like) approach. I assign each student a section of Exercise 4 as homework for the week. When they perform this section at their lesson, it is in the form of a teacher/student duet. The student must replicate the rhythm, speed, and dynamics that I play in a call and response fashion by alternating measures. For example, I may decide to play measure 1 of the C major scale with a pianissimo dynamic, all notes slurred, and throw in an accelerando in the middle of the measure. The student must therefore replicate the dynamic, articulation, and speed for measure 2. In measure 3, I may switch to a forte dynamic, slur two/tongue two articulation, and a strict andante tempo that the student must replicate in measure 4. This scale game not only tests the student’s knowledge of the scale, various articulations, speed, and dynamic control, but it is also a good lesson in listening and flexibility. When the pattern is reversed (allowing the student to call the shots beginning in measure 1), it is good lesson in improvisation.
These are my scale games. Please feel free to experiment with them in your own practice and studio teaching. Scale games may not always be “fun” but they definitely make practicing scales a bit more interesting.
Do you have a scale game that you use based on the Debost model or one that you have devised on your own? How successful has it been? Do you use any of the above scale games in your own practice? Do you prefer one to another?