Practicing scales is a vital part of learning to play well on any wind instrument. But this site isn’t just about learning to play your sax or flute; it’s about learning to play it so you can play by ear. Below are 9 different ideas to build into your practice routine to get the maximum return for learning to play by ear. These are the best ways to practice scales for improvisation. Working on your scales following these patterns and suggestions will help with your ability to play by ear.
First, understand what your scales really are
Most of us learned our scales because we were told we need to know them. But the scales themselves as “things to learn to play” are really only part of the story.
Scales are really just a sequence of notes that are a basic exercise to train our ear to hear “pitch collections.” Scales train our ears to hear certain intervals as belonging together. They have a relationship to each other. They teach us to hear some notes as the more important notes and others as “helper notes” or notes that are best used to lead up to or away from the dominant notes.
If you think of a song like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” you’ll find that the chorus of the song uses the notes of a major scale. And even though the notes don’t always follow the scale pattern, you’re hearing those scale notes in that chorus. It creates a mood and a feel because it uses the notes of the major scale and ignores other notes not in the major scale.
So, learning to play the scales as scales is important. But to become familiar with those note collections or pitch collections, you’ll want to be able to move freely among any and all of the notes of the scales you’re practicing in order to master them for improvisation.
Do these 9 things to master the scales for improvisation
This isn’t a list of things to do in sequence when practicing your scales. It is a list of the types of things you need to do to get familiar enough with the scales that you own them.
Learn your scales ascending and descending
This is the first step in mastering your scales. It’s the way we’ve all learned our scales. If you don’t have this part down, it’s helpful to do it.
This is where you start. All illustrations are for the C scale due to ease of understanding. Of course, you’ll want to learn all 12 keys.
But his is the basic C scale. You need to know the notes, in sequence.
Learn the scales over the entire range of your instrument
You want to be able to play over the entire range of your instrument. In order to do that, you have to practice over the entire range of the instrument. It might sound elementary, but just remember to do it.
In other words, if you’re practicing a C scale and you’re practicing on a sax or flute, don’t just stop at the low C. Go down to the B and back up. If you’re practicing the F scale, go all the way down to C and back to F.
Here is the C scale covering the entire range of a clarinet. It’s important to know the scale for the entire range.
Practice your scales with random direction changes
You don’t just want to go from one end of the scale to the other. Mix it up a bit. Make random changes in direction as you go up and down so that at any point in the scale, you can go in the opposite direction. This is the first step in learning scales as collections of sounds.
Here is an example of doing the scale with random direction changes.
Throw in patterns of sequences over the scale
Practicing over sequences is an important variation in applying your scales in ways that will help you develop a mastery of the “pitch collections” that make up our scales.
So, play up 3 notes and down 2. Up another 3, down 2. Or go up 4 and down 2. Both directions.
A good example of what I mean by patterns of sequences is covered in this video.
Add in greater intervals as you progress
The reason you want to work on playing greater and greater intervals in your scales is that we hear rough ideas of where melody lines go. But the wider the intervals are between notes the harder it is to hear exactly what those notes are. Practicing those intervals teaches our ears to anticipate those gaps and hear them coming.
Practice these patterns over the pentatonic scale, too
I’ve written elsewhere about the significance of the pentatonic scale and why you need to master the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is a sub group of both the major and minor scales. It is also the foundation of the blues scales. As it turns out, the pentatonic scales are the dominant notes in these other scales.
As you practice the pentatonic scales, you’ll naturally develop a feel for these dominant notes in the other scales.
Practice your patterns over different rhythms
Play them straight. Play them in swing style, and then in triplets. The more you practice them with different rhythms, the more you’ll be accustomed to hearing these patterns in ways that will fit as you improvise.
Spend extra time at the high and low ranges of your instrument
I will be very upfront about this point. I’m not a brass player and I’ve only ever played trombone for a few months as a kid. So I’m not sure how well this point specifically filters out into the real world for a brass player.
But being a woodwind player, I’m very aware of this one thing. Switching between flute and sax, for instance, is pretty easy until you get to high C. After that, it’s an entirely different game.
If you want to develop dexterity on your instrument – particularly as a doubler – you need to focus on the upper and lower ends of your instrument. And the high end is especially important. The fingerings are going to be much different as you switch between instruments.
Practice these scales and exercises over backing tracks
As wind players, we only play one note at a time. But you need to “test drive” these patterns over top of real music to see how they fit. You need to hear the patterns like they are vocabulary.
When you are learning a language, you don’t just learn the words. You learn the words and learn to use them in sentences. It’s the same with these phrases. You need to make them second-nature. But you also need to make it second nature to hear how they work in the real musical world.
Using these techniques to practice your scales will make your practice effective
I’ve written elsewhere that not all practice is equally effective. This is a way to make your scale practicing do the most work for you that it can.
Hope it helps.
Jamie. (The Wind Guy)