Violin scales are mind-boggling (to pianists)

InAp_Violin_1The Violin Stage 1 instrument pack has just been released for ScaleBlitzer, and I think I have grown a few brain cells in getting my head around scales for strings!

Being a pianist and never having played a stringed instrument myself, I was pretty ignorant when it came to technical work for strings. So, in addition to my co-author Abe researching the various violin syllabi around the world (e.g. AMEB, Trinity, ABRSM and ANZCA), I consulted with string players so that I could run our very piano-oriented practice methods by them and see how they would translate to violin. I suspected everything would need to change a bit.

Well, not only were my suspicions confirmed but I realised that violin scales are crazily complicated compared to piano scales. Pianists ‘just’ have to learn the notes and the fingering, which remains consistent in all registers – and then practice and practice to get an evenness of touch and tone.

Not so for violinists. (And all string players obviously. Viola and Cello are next on my list!) Violinists will have a variety of fingerings for the same scale depending on the position they start in. There’s all the different bowings one can do – separate bows, slurred in pairs or in fours… but in addition to that there’s the PART of the bow you play with, like upper or lower. And whether you start with up or down bow. Oh, hang on, then there’s listening to the intonation and holding the bow correctly the whole time. All this while you are thinking about the notes, fingering and articulation. And speaking of articulation, it’s not just a matter of staccato or legato… there’s detache, martele, and spiccato to consider. Oh boy. I lost concentration when I started to hear about other terms like hook stroke or chain link or something like that… Abe and I started to go completely mad! (My apologies to string players. However I now have much more respect for you.)

The information I gathered on bowing was particularly intriguing to me. Bowing each note of the scale multiple times (often referred to as ‘scrubbing’ J) is a really good way to practice. Repeating each note 2 or 4 times, or even 6 times in a rhythm (such as 4 semiquavers and 2 quavers, commonly known as ‘busy-busy stop stop’) is all excellent drilling. But a pattern such as ‘Long, short short’ (1 crotchet and 2 quavers), which seemed to me to be equally easy, is much harder because – I am told – you can get stuck in a particular part of the bow and then it’s difficult to bow properly. So much to think about!

It was absolutely fascinating discussing the viability of other practice methods such as ‘descending only’ (MUCH harder for string players than for pianists), ‘eyes closed’ (hard for strings and pianists but easy for woodwinds!) and playing ‘super slow’ (a real workout for everyone except pianists).

Once we’d been through my list, we created some other methods that will hopefully make violin teachers’ lives easier, because students will be constantly reminded to:

“Make sure you play every note in tune”

“Think about your bow hold”

“Play with a beautiful sound”

The Stage 1 Violin pack is suitable for violinists up to a Grade 1 standard in any violin syllabus. It is FREE once you’ve purchased the ScaleBlitzer app (currently $1.99 in the App Store).

4 Responses to “Violin scales are mind-boggling (to pianists)”

  1. Dianna Denley September 5, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    They’re mind boggling for violin students too ;D Thank you for thinking up scale blitzer! Just waiting for the new violin syllabus to come in ;D ;D

  2. Lecia April 3, 2014 at 5:16 am #

    There are all sorts of other considerations too like whether you play all in first position or shift or start in 3rd position and stay there. My son is at grade 2 Ameb level and I learned piano so I am finding all of this boggling too. How long until you have violin and cello (for my daughter) at stage 2?

    • Samantha Coates April 3, 2014 at 5:19 am #

      Hi Lecia,
      Wow, that’s intense. I’m not sure ScaleBlitzer will be able to cope with all these extra options! I do know a couple of string players who are at Grade 3 level who still happily use Stage 1 and find that it helps. Stage 2 may be a while away. Thanks for the feedback though!

  3. Margaret December 1, 2016 at 6:52 am #

    Major scales on the violin (and viola) are actually very straightforward! There are only 4 finger patterns to learn (each starting on a different finger – utilising the tetrachords) and then you can play any major scale anywhere in any position!! Increasing the octaves means adding the patterns together. Minor scales are a little more complicated, but can still be learnt using several basic patterns. This is probably why grade 3 level players still benefit from level 1!

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