By Stephanie Doell
I was fascinated, absolutely enthralled, the first time my teacher told me it had to be a double sharp. F DOUBLE SHARP!! Why can’t I call it G? Isn’t F DOUBLE SHARP more difficult to read? Did I really have to concern myself with raising a note two half steps? The piece was the Moonlight Sonata. I was somewhere around the age of eleven and learning to play the piano. It all began there. Notes, my teacher explained, have functions in music. Every note in a musical line leads somewhere. All of a sudden, I could see purpose to the ups and downs and twists and turns. The composer had a plan, and I was going to go with him on his musical journey. Through my years of study, scales have been the foundation of all of the information that I gather about a piece. Learning scales equips a soloist with ease of mobility, knowledge about note function, and a trained ear.
Scales are the basis of our technique. There are many, many different types of scales. First we learn our major scales, then our minors. We learn a chromatic scale, and we may even learn an octatonic scale (a scale that alternates whole step, half step). Learning to play scales is a rote activity. We repeat a scale over and over until our muscles memorize the pattern of notes. As soon as our muscle memory takes over, we can begin working for speed. It is very important to a solo performer to be able to execute scales with great speed and fluidity. Scales provide us with the technique needed to execute consecutive grace notes, glissandos, turns, etc. They are essential for embellishments. Scales also comprise the majority of technical passages in a solo piece. For example, Chaminade’s “Concertino” uses a D Major scale followed by an Eb Major scale for it’s very fast passages. If a soloist already knows his scales, then he can fully concern himself with learning the rhythms of the passage. Sight reading will also be substantially easier. Learn a variety of a scales and a world of music will be available to you.
We also use scales to learn something about the direction of the musical line and how individual notes function in their settings. Each note of a scale is assigned a number based on where the note falls in the scale. If we are playing a C Major scale, C would be one. D would be two, etc. We learn from experience, as well as in our theory classes, that the fifth note of the scale and the seventh note of the scale often resolve to the first note of the scale, which we call tonic. Every major and minor scale is built alphabetically, neither repeating nor skipping a letter. That is how we explain our F double sharp. F double sharp is the seventh note in a G sharp minor scale. Calling it G would be incorrect because G functions as tonic and is sharp. F double sharp is the leading tone in G sharp minor. As repertoire becomes more challenging, the scale that the piece is using changes more rapidly. An awareness of how each note is functioning within the current scale of the piece helps the performer give every note purpose in the piece. G will lead to C in C Major but will take us to an A flat in A flat Major.
Lastly, scales train our ears to recognize patterns in music. Each scale is defined by a unique pattern of whole steps and half steps. For example, a major scale is comprised of two groups of whole step, whole step, half step with a half step separating the two groups of notes. When a performer learns major scales, he is training his ear to recognize the distinct sound associated with this particular pattern. That is true of every scale a performer learns. Being able to recognize the sound of a particular scale and identify scales within the repertoire enables the performer to easily identify mistakes when practicing.
Scale practice is essential for anyone wishing to develop skills in performance. One should practice basic scales from tonic to tonic as well as scale exercises that have been created to develop musicality, ear training, and further technical skills. And, remember, the next time you see F double sharp, ask yourself where it’s going instead of why it’s there.
Stephanie Doell graduated in 2003 from Loyola University New Orleans with a Bachelor of Music. She has studied flute performance, music theory, and music therapy extensively. Stephanie has performed in orchestras, small ensembles, and as a flute soloist throughout both the Greater New Orleans area and the Greater Los Angeles area. She is available to perform on both flute and piccolo and offers lessons in flute performance, ear training, and music theory. She is located in Pasadena, California. Please visit her website to contact her with any questions.