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Maximum Scales

By Darrin Koltow

Are you having a tough time getting through your melodic scale exercises? Does it seem like that last note will never come? Or, maybe you sometimes enjoy playing the scales, but you just aren't sure when to stop.

And there may be other challenges with your melodic scale work: you know that the notes you're playing are somehow supposed to be used for solos and improvisation. But, no matter how fast you can zip from a low C to a high C, you don't feel ready to improvise. How can we discover what's missing and install it in our scale work?

First, we need to ask another question: What musical result are we hoping to attain by playing scales?

We'll answer that by using the good 'ol major scale. What we'll discover about this scale will apply to other scales.

What do musicians hope to achieve by playing the major scale? We want to make our fingers go to the right notes without having to think about it. We do this so we can learn how to improvise melodically. That's our goal: to improvise, using the scale notes.

What is improvisation? How do we know when we're hearing it and doing it?

Let's start with a simple chord progression in F major, and progressively add ingredients until we feel we have something that sounds like improvisation.

If we're hearing this, can we say "Ah! The player is improvising." Not yet. What's missing? To state the obvious, we're looking at a static piece of music, while improvisation is alive, dynamic, and unpredictable.

Let's say the piano player or whoever is comping the soloist plays the 6251 phrase again. If the soloist plays the same exact notes he played on the last 6251, would we think we were hearing improvisation? No way. Let's say the piano player plays the same chords five more times, and the soloist plays something different each time. Would we start to think we were hearing improvisation? Maybe. If the soloist varied the notes in each phrase enough, melodically or rhythmically, we might call it improvisation.

So, variation is a vital ingredient to improvisation; we need to include it in our scale work. Knowing this helps us create an objective for scales that will help us to be better soloists.

That objective will include these ingredients:

  1. Staircase. The way I usually play scales: from a low C to a high C, ascending strictly by step or half-step.
  2. Chord tones. Notes that are sensitive to the changes in the chord progression I'm playing over. These notes are chord tones.
  3. Variation. Some kind of rhythmic or melodic variation to the stairstep scale when the chord progression comes around again.

Let's clarify what it means to be "sensitive" in that second point, and then introduce some actual music that will meet these points. To be sensitive to the changes in the chord progression generally means that the notes you play are the tones of the chord in the progression, at least on the strong beats. But sensitivity doesn't mean jumping from a high C in the Dmin7 chord to a low G note in the Gmin7 chord. It means keeping a flowing, smooth line as we move from the bar with Dmin7 to Gmin7. Let's show the music to better illustrate this.

Does this phrase meet our criteria? Almost. It's just one phrase; there's no variation yet. Let's add the second phrase:

Is this improvisation yet? Of course not: it's arranged, notated, pre-planned music. However, playing this music, and playing through exercises based on it, can move you toward improvisation. How?

The above exercise feels like music: it's within a musical context: chord changes that move by fourths. The arpeggios drive home to your ears that you're hearing a progression you've heard a zillion times before. The scale pattern in the bars without the arpeggios won't convey the harmony as strongly as the arpeggios, but playing it will teach you the notes in the scale.

And making the arpeggios flow into the scales, and the scales flow in the arpeggios forces you to hear the scale notes as music, and not just isolated notes to stamp out. What you're doing is giving your ears a chance to anticipate the note that's coming. And given even half a chance, your ears will rise to the occasion, and you'll improve as a musician because of it.

Let's build on this musical marriage of scales and arpeggios, to create a series of exercises that will move you further toward improvisation. To build these exercises, do the following:

  • Play the above phrase against a metronome beat, until it's smooth, and until you don't have to read it anymore: memorize it. Then, introduce these variations:
  • Vary the starting tone: moving from F, to G, to A, and onward up to the next octave's F.
  • Vary the key: play it in keys C, Bb and Eb.
  • Vary the rhythmic pattern in at least two different ways, rather than play just stairstep scales.
  • Vary the direction: flip the patterns you devised upside down, ascending where you were descending and descending where you were ascending.

If you find this exercise too difficult for you at this stage, just start with the first phrase as shown, and memorize it. When you've done that, take tiny steps forward, starting with playing the exercise in another key.

You can see that the approach we've taken in this article is not your typical scale playing. Because of that, it may not feel natural when you first play it; it may not feel "right." You might even say, "But these don't feel like scales! I need to practice my scales!" If you feel that way, ask yourself this: what's the purpose of playing scales at all? Is it to be good at playing scales, or is it to make music? The approach we've taken in this article makes that link between scales and music clearer and more rewarding for you than the traditional yo-yo, staircase approach.

The exercises we've created only hint at the many possibilities for scale exercises. For example, instead of playing arpeggios in the second and fourth bars, you could play them in the first and third bars. Or, put arpeggios in bars three and four, and scales in bars one and two. Also, you could change the chord progression, perhaps to a minor key.

Explore these possibilities, and have fun doing so.

For further reading, see the following resources:

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