Archive | August 2016

How to cover scales with ketchup (tomato sauce)

This is post isn’t about composing, but I’m so excited about my current approach to doing scales with students that I thought I’d post about it. I’m guessing most of you reading this do some teaching of beginners so hopefully you find it helpful.

If my children are any guide, then the only way to make vegetables palatable is to drown them in tomato ketchup. As I teacher, I’m always searching for the magic ketchup that will make scales palatable to my students. Whilst I’m not sure that such a thing exists, some approaches to scales seem to work better than others.

My students and I have a fundamental difference of opinion. I want my students to be able to play all 12 major/minor scales a a decent tempo, and from memory. My students don’t want to practice scales at all. This cartoon captures their sentiment perfectly…

Awesome already

My current approach to solving this stalemate is based on only doing the first 5 notes of the scale. I start with C major, then I do D minor, then D major, at which point the process repeats itself.The picture illustrates what I mean.


Here’s all the reasons why this approach is cool:

  1. Five notes fits our short term memory processing abilities much better than the full scale.
  2. It covers both major and minor scales
  3. Major and minor scales are integrated with each other. Previously I would do a few major scales, then if there was time and I could be bothered, a few minor scales.
  4. It avoids explaining a harmonic minor scale with the raised 7th. Notice that this extra complexity occurs exactly where are our short term processing power runs out (at the 7th object/thing).
  5. Instead minor scales are presented as a variation (or one step away) from a major scale. I know that D minor and C major aren’t the relative major and minor scales in a classical theory sense. But from a learning point of view it is much easier to teach D minor as “take a C major scale, drop the bottom note and add one note on top”. (I use my fingers to demonstrate.)
  6. It highlights the fact that it is the 3rd note that is the key factor in defining a scale as major or minor. This holds true across modes (Lydian, Major, Mixolydian are all “major” modes with a major 3rd, the remaining modes all sound “minor” with a minor 3rd).
  7. It makes getting to a new scale a matter of altering one note. It the above example the next scale is E major, but students only have to alter the G to a G#…easy!
  8. For beginning students it allows them to learn a much wider range of scales within a limited note range. Limited note range isn’t so much of an issue on strings, but on brass instruments it certainly is.
  9. To get the full octave scale, all that needs to be done is to combine two 5 notes groups. 5 note C major + 5 note G major = full octave C major. Better than that 5 note C major + 5 note G minor = full octave C mixolydian. Similarly, 5 note C minor + 5 note G minor = full octave C dorian. Or, 5 note C minor + 5 note G major = full octave C melodic minor ascending.

Before I finish, I should acknowledge that I got this concept initially from a colleague Steve C — yes he and I do actually sit around talking about how to teach kids scales and have fun doing it (even without ketchup). Thanks Steve!