Teaching Scales: What I Teach and When

Pin Teaching Scales to Suzuki Students.

My Favorite Scale Books

Last week, I talked about the importance of scale practice for young string students. This week, I thought I would go more into detail about how I introduce scales and some of the materials I use.

There are suggested scales printed throughout the Suzuki Method Books, but for my own teaching, I do like to have a separate scale book. I use and have been very happy with two scale books: Scales for Young Violists, and Scales for Advanced Violists, both by Barbara Barber (for violin: Scales for Young Violinists and Scales for Advanced Violinists).

Scales for Young Violists includes all 2-octave Major scales and all 2-octave harmonic, and melodic minor scales. I love this book because it is well organized (alphabetically by key) and has good, clear fingering choices. In addition to the scales, each key area also includes an arpeggio series, scales in broken thirds, and some introductory double-stopping. The front cover features a big scale checklist, so students can check off each scale as they complete it. The back cover has a diagram of the circle of fifths.

Scales for Advanced Violists includes all 3-octave scales and arpeggios and is similarly laid out. There are either two or three fingering choices presented for each scale. The lower fingering is also found in the Carl Flesch scale book, the top fingering is found in the Ivan Galamian scale book. All scales begin with the three note turn, which I teach, but the turn is printed in smaller notes, so it can be easily omitted.


When I Introduce Scales

There are limited opportunities for teaching scales in Book 1, which only includes a few key areas. To play their pieces, Book 1 viola students really only need to know D Major, G, Major, C Major, and perhaps a natural minor. There are plenty of other techniques to cover in Book 1, so I will have students wait to purchase the scale book until Book 2.


I like to teach scales and new key areas ahead of when students will start working on them in the repertoire. For example, knowing that The Two Grenadiers is coming up in Book 2, I will introduce the key of g minor, with its tricky low first fingers, earlier on in the book. Playing in new keys is often tricky for young students, because it is hard to visualize the fingerboard. If you think about it, string players look down towards their finger at an angle, while pianists are able to view the keyboard straight on.


To address the disconnect between the notes and their location on the fingerboard, I turned to the materials from Michiko Yurko’s “Music Mind Games”. Using the “magic notes”, I printed out a fingerboard diagram from this awesome website  so that the dots would fit perfectly into each spot on the fingerboard. You could also use glass beads or erasers, but I like that the notes are see-through so you can still see the note name underneath. I also laminated the chart at FedEx Office so it will last a long time. Before playing a new scale, I will have the student “spell out” the scale on the fingerboard using the magic dots and then we will play it from the fingerboard chart. This is especially helpful for melodic minor scales, because the student will get a chance to see how the raised/lowered scale degree 6 and 7 apply to the fingerboard. Once the student has used this visual method, playing the notes from the scale book becomes much easier. I will also often have a student say each note name aloud as they play, to further reinforce their fingerboard knowledge.

Fingerboard chart closeup.


Suzuki Viola Book 2 includes more opportunities for shifting than the corresponding violin book, so I generally introduce 3rd position no later than Brahms’ Waltz in Book 2. For more on how I teach beginning shifting, check out this post and this post. In the Scales for Young Violists book, there are many opportunities to shift into the 3rd position, including optional fingerings for scales normally played in the first position, such as C Major. Every student moves at a slightly different pace, but I generally want to finish all the Major and melodic minor scales in two octaves by the middle of Book 3. In addition to playing the scales as written in the book, I like my students to do the little acceleration pattern in the front of the book. Scales should be practiced for both intonation and facility, so to test facility, I like students to eventually play each scale up to quarter note equals 120.

3-octave scales

By the middle of Book 3/early Book 4, it’s time to start 3-octave scales. The youth orchestras in our town really emphasize the 3-octave scales, so I try to go through the circle of fifths with my viola students as we move through books 3 and 4. The biggest new challenge with 3 octaves is the use of fifth position and above, so I have some exercises I introduced to make for a smoother transition. I hope to share some of those exercises in the future.

How do you teach scales? Do you have any tips or tricks for making it easier?


Happy Practicing!

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