Woodwind Performance: Scales

Mike Lawson • Performance • October 17, 2013

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Shedding Scales

Most musicians are familiar with the expression for practicing known as “wood shedding,” or “shedding” for short. When I was a student at the University of North Texas, the lower-level players were referred to as “lizards” because “they hadn’t shed their scales.” Scales are a part of music that many student instrumentalists treat as a hoop to jump through rather than a necessity for becoming a better player. They will only work on them because a teacher insists on it, “but they ain’t gonna like it!” Part of the resistance to embracing scales stems from the fact that every instrument has at least one key center that doesn’t lay well on the instrument. For example, the key of F# on the saxophone is difficult.  Another problem is that scales can be downright tedious, and that can lead to a student glossing over details such as making them rhythmically even.

Woodwind performers who study privately can sometimes be tied to a particular instrumental approach to scales, such as the clarinetists’ 24 Varied Scales and Exercises by J.B. Albert. Those are great assets to learning the instrument, but I am always a bit disappointed when a student is either stuck on playing them in only one format or, worse yet, has to read the scales. For a beginner, that is okay. But for someone who is farther along, it is going to shortchange them in the long run. Once they become locked into one way of doing scales, often they can do it without hearing what they are actually playing. That can have some negative implications for when they begin playing repertoire, as it can lead to unimaginative and mechanical performances. The world doesn’t need more musical typists!

The solution is first to point out the usefulness of scales for learning the harmonic landscape of one’s instrument, such as the “fingering” maps or patterns of each key on an instrument. Knowing each map opens up many possibilities for performance, be it the ability to master a piece of music more quickly, to transpose, or to improvise and compose. Secondly, it helps to develop a variety of routines to practice scales and include playing simple melodies such as nursery rhyme tunes in all keys. The variation in scale routines can include all modes of a given key center, format variations, or all modes utilizing a common starting note. In addition, workouts can be focused on one type of mode or scale, and intervalic scales. Lastly, they can learn these things in bite-size chunks, provided the routines are a regular part of their instruction and practice. Eventually they can cover many keys in a single practice session once their familiarity with the scales improves.

When I teach my beginning improvisation students, I always ask if they know their scales and every hand goes up. Yet, when I throw them a curveball such as playing those scales modally, the scuffling begins. They think they know their scales, but they really don’t know them. So we begin right there with playing scales, but starting them at a different interval each time: for example, C major one octave up and down C to C, followed by C major one octave D to D, then E to E, F to F, and so on. We work this in all keys. When they get a handle on that (but not necessarily complete mastery) we change format by inverting them playing them down and up. Later, we can change format again by alternating with one mode going up one octave and the next going down, and that, too, may be inverted beginning with going down on the first mode and going up on the next. Further, we can ascend the steps of the scale, playing the modes in broken form such as “up only” or “down only.” Each variation presents a new look at the same object and aids the brain in developing a sense of each key center on the instrument. Even before we get into more arcane variations, we start playing simple melodies by ear in various keys as well. Those serve to further refine the harmonic landscape because diatonic melodies are the scales out of order, but they often imply harmonic motion such as a V7-to-I cadence.

Now, on paper this may seem to be a lot to work with and tedious for those with short attention spans, but in bite-size chunks and over time an interesting thing takes place. Playing the scales modally introduces the idea that the major scale has more than just the major harmonic color to it. Playing simple melodies by ear helps develop the ear-to-hand coordination and the sense of implied harmonic information as it relates to the key of the melody. The map of the key centers start to form into physical patterns in their brain and the students can now execute these patterns with greater ease.

Learning anything has a snowball effect associated with it, but with music it involves a physical component and much of that we retain for the rest of our lives. Each way of learning something new makes the next way of doing it easier. The mastery of a new format starts to happen more quickly with each successive variation, and the map of each key becomes clearer with each new angle. The students begin to really know and hear their scales and develop greater confidence on their instrument.

Obviously, this requires time. The challenge is how to get it all done along with the other items each student needs to practice. For an intermediate to advanced student, I recommend a short scale routine that starts with “C,” and then add a sharp and a flat on the first day. Continue adding a sharp and a flat each day, with a review of any scales that were problematic the day before. This presumes a student will practice. While some simply will not, if enough of your woodwind students get serious about it, the overall technical level of your ensemble will improve and positive peer pressure may result.

Here’s a bite-size routine for working scales:

1 Week  |  Scales  |  Song by Ear (options)

Day 1 C, G, F   “Twinkle,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

Day 2 D, Bb

Day 3 A, Eb

Day 4 Ab, E

Day 5 Db, B

Day 6 Gb/ F#

Day 7   Rest and Relax – read a book, listen to music!


For more rudimentary players, the Day 1 schedule could be Week 1 and so forth. Varying formats will also make it interesting. There is no rush to move to the next one, but boredom is a good sign the student might be ready to try something new.

Format 1: Scales modally within a single key center one octave up and down

Format 2: Inversion of Format 1

Format 3: Alternating one mode up and the next mode down

Format 4: Inversion of Format 3 – one mode down and the next mode up

Format 5: Broken – ascend only

Format 6: Broken – descend only

In addition, students should try playing a simple melody in the same keys they are practicing. Here’s a list of tunes with their starting note and scale step indicated by a number. These were chosen because they have no chromatic or non-harmonic tones.

Simple Songs for playing by ear.

“Yankee Doodle” / 1     “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” / 5 (pick up note)

“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” / 1           “I’m a Little Teapot” / 1

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” / 3    “Are You Sleeping” or “Frare Jaques” / 1

“Happy Birthday” / 5     “Joy to the World” / 1

“Old MacDonald” / 1    “This Old Man” / 5

“Jack and Jill” / 1         “Brahm’s Lullaby” / 3

“My Bonnie Lies O’er the Ocean” / 5 (pick up note)

In addition, students should try playing a simple melody in the same keys they are practicing. Here’s a list of tunes with their starting note and scale step indicated by a number. These were chosen because they have no chromatic or non-harmonic tones.

Further variations may include:

1. Cross Modal practice of all of modes beginning with the same pitch, such as C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, C Aeolian, C Locrian, followed by the same series on pitch DH. Advance chromatically upward to the next pitch once all seven modes of the major scale that begin on that note have been played.

2. Alternating ascending/descending chromatically on one type of scale or mode, for example C Phrygian ascending followed by C# Phrygian descending, and so on.

3. Intervalic scales in thirds, fourths, and so on, with varied formats such as upward intervals, downward intervals, and alternating up and down.

The result of all of this “wood shedding” of scales is a greater connection to the instrument on the part of the student and improved technical facility and confidence. Getting a few students to sign onto such a task can lead to positive influence to improve with the rest of your students. (This can be followed with minor scales and their related modes as well.) As I mentioned, taken in small chunks (and you will have to determine what each student can absorb), this is doable and offers a variety of approaches to avoid some of the tediousness. It also lays a solid foundation from which to develop improvisation skills. You will hear a skilled musician emerging from the “lizard” skin once he or she sheds their scales!

Larry Panella serves on the faculty of The University of Southern Mississippi as an associate professor of music and director of the Jazz Studies Program and is the founder and leader of the USM JQ. He has performed with numerous artists and entertainers, including The Phil Collins Big Band, The Woody Herman Orchestra, Natalie Cole, Steve Allen, Nelson Riddle, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. His recordings include his jazz quartet CDs, The Gestures Project and Under The Influence, two albums with the Collection Jazz Orchestra, the Ashley Alexander Big Band, the Phil Collins Big Band CD A Hot Night In Paris, and releases by jazz guitarist Chris Cortez.         

Panella is an artist-clinician for Cannonball Musical Instruments, makers of the Big Bell Global Series line of saxophones.

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