The Multifaceted Gift of Scales: Part 1

By Miranda Wilson

(This post will be part 1 of a 3-part series.)

I'm always surprised to hear scales described as boring, because for me, a daily ritual of scales-playing has a meditative, almost devotional feeling that focuses my energy for the rest of my practice day.

Scales, can be boring, of course--if you're sawing dutifully up and down the cello without understanding what you're doing it for. But practised mindfully, scales are the gift that keeps on giving. For example:

  • Scales teach you to audiate melodic and harmonic patterns, and internalize their fingerings on the instrument.

  • Scales teach your fingers and bow to go faster and faster. (Try the "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" metronome technique from p. 46 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)

  • You can use scales as a "reset button" for any illogical habits that have crept into the trajectories of your tone production, whether that's shifting, bowing, etc.

Today, I'm going to write about how scales can help us work on the Tone Triangle (see Cello Practice, Cello Performance, pp. 28-29) of contact point, arm weight, and bow speed.

Let's focus on bow speed for a moment. One of the commonest problems I see in masterclasses is an otherwise good player who habitually pulls the bow too fast, "skimming" over the top of the string rather than really sinking her arm weight into it. This player usually hasn't figured out how to play close to the bridge, probably because when you can only pull the bow fast, all you get at the bridge is scratchy overtones without a fundamental. Playing like this doesn't project or resonate well.

This exercise helps you self-teach slowing the bow down in small, gradual steps. Starting with the metronome on 60 bpm, play a four-octave scale in slurs of four. It doesn't matter what scale you use, or in what key. For diatonic scales (major, minors and so on), I use the fingerings in W. E. Whitehouse and R. V. Tabb's Scale and Arpeggio Album, or, if you're feeling adventurous, try the octatonic and hexatonic scales using the fingerings on pp. 120-123 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance

Things to notice:

  • Are you making your best sound? Check that both arms are relaxed and sinking into the string.

  • Intonation is part of sound! If you have trouble staying in tune, especially in the high register, practise with a drone.

Now we're going to start slowing the bow down. Keeping 60 bpm for the quarter note/crotchet, play the same scale with five notes to a bow...

...six notes to a bow...

...and seven notes to a bow, all the way up to eight notes to a bow, still at 60 to the quarter note/crotchet. Congratulations! You just taught yourself to pull the bow twice as slowly as before.

Things that may happen during the learning process:

  • As you add more notes to the slur and therefore slow the bow down, you may worry that you're going to run out of bow and get tense. Check this impulse the second you experience it. (Practise this exercise in mindful relaxation at the cello.)

  • Don't fall into the trap of playing with a small, feeble tone just so you can "save bow." What's the point of that? Instead, adjust the other parameters of the Tone Triangle, such as moving your contact point closer to the bridge and making your arm heavy into the string. You'll find that the "resistance" in this part of the string actually makes you slow your bow down.

Now do a "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" move and go back to playing six notes to a bow. Notice how much easier it is now that you can do eight.

For extra fun, experiment with getting up to 12 notes to a bow, or even 16. Always practise with your best possible sound--don't accept anything less.

For extra extra fun, practise this exercises solely in one-octave scales in the upper register, where the shortened string makes the resistance even trickier to master. This will set you up well for playing extremely slow, often high-pitched solos such as the "Louange à l'éternité de Jésus" from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, where the tempo is an excruciating 42 to the sixteenth note/semiquaver.

Moral of the story: when you increase your skills in tiny, gradual increments, you can practically trick yourself into improving.