Guidance from The Strad’s archive on tuning, bow control, shifting, direction and pulse


Many students practise scales first, then arpeggios, and only after that double-stops, for which they often don’t allow enough time. In Elizabeth Gilels’s system double-stops immediately follow the scales, and only after that come arpeggios and chromatic scales. This helps to remind students to play double-stops and to allow time for it. It is very important to play octaves, 10ths and fingered octaves every day, from as young an age as possible. They should all be practised in a slow tempo, then medium, and it is also important to play them fast, even though sometimes intonation suffers. As a rule, I recommend playing all scales without vibrato.Boris Kuschnir, Teacher Talk, The Strad, 2011

This method of tuning scales was taught by Dorothy DeLay. Before playing complete scales, tune each note in the following order:

Begin with the ‘skeleton’ of the scale, the notes of the perfect intervals: first, fourth, fifth and eighth;

Then add the tow ‘leading’ notes: the third and seventh;

Then add the second and sixth notes to give the complete scale, tuning both these notes in relation to the third and the seventh.

Simon Fischer, The Strad, September 2006

Some musicians look at scales as warm-up material. This is a misjudgement. You should be properly warmed up even before starting to play them, in order to execute the stretched positions and double stops with a balanced left hand, and to play string-crossings with a bow that can respond to every type of contact with the string. The bow arm’s importance when practising scales should never be underestimated. Commitment with the bow gives the scale direction and pulse, shifting our attention to how it sounds and away from the area that is usually perceived as more difficult.

With the introduction of stretching, or extension, technique, the great cellist Pablo Casals created the illusion of a shorter fingerboard: he effectively made the instrument smaller. His new ideas helped minimise and in some instances eliminate shifts. Shifts that are not part of an interpretation, in the form of articulation or a beautiful glissando, must not be audible. This is especially apparent with scales.

Mats Lidstrom, The Strad, April 2012

A teacher who is convinced that scales practice is important will inspire their pupils to study them properly. You should tell students that a significant part of the Russian school is based on scales, and the results of that are not bad! Easy scales can be used at first to develop an idea of what it means to play them ‘well’. Students should get some decent fingerings and learn them thoroughly. But my theory is that anyone who needs to read music to practise scales will have problems playing in tune by memory.

Bruno Giuranna, Teacher Talk, The Strad, 2011

The string vibrates between the bridge at one end and the nut or finger at the other end. An open string always sounds pure because it is stopped so well at both ends. But if it’s a finger, rather than the nut, that stops the string, the finger must have the stop ready before the bow starts to move to sound that note. Otherwise there is a momentary sound of ‘fuzz’ before the note becomes pure.

Obvious examples of finger that need preparation are slurred descending notes on the same string, where the lower finger needs to be placed before lifting the upper finger, and any finger played on the new string, which must be in place before the bow gets there. Often the notes that come out slightly ‘fuzzy’ in scales are the first finger on the new string ascending, and the fourth finger on the new string descending.

Simon Fischer, The Strad, September 2008

Scales improve technique, but not just by paying them lip service. Simply playing through a couple of scales during a practice session will have very little impact on a pupil’s technical development. ‘Slim-o-Food will only help you lose weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet’, the ads tell us. Similarly, scales will only affect technique if they are part of a holistic approach to teaching. Time and concern must simultaneously be put into posture, arm positions, precision of finger movement and positioning. In addition, it is essential that the many connections with aural work are brought to the fore.

Paul Harris, The Strad, November 2001

These are the rules I follow: Play scales to the end of your life! Practise slowly. Don’t play loud and fast. Control your body. Think like a singer and feel the breath from your stomach. And finally, be patient and don’t give up.

Heinrich Schiff, The Strad, December 2004

Read The Strad's article on How to make scales enjoyable.

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