PrayerShe returned for the next lesson with C major, one octave, hands separately, played slowly and accurately.
So far, so good.
For as long as she is a musician, she will be playing scales. As will I.
But I got away from them for a number of years in midlife. I was bored with them, and focused instead on the pieces I was trying to learn. Insofar as I was doing technical work at all, it was more from the Brahms “Fifty-One Exercises” than anything else.
Then I began to improvise.
Dupré’s course on improvisation begins with the harmonization of the major scale, then minor. I spent a long time with this, in all keys. Scale in the soprano. Scale “en taille” (in the tenor). Scale in the pedals, or the left hand bass. It was a grind, but over the years since then it has proven increasingly worthwhile that I spent the time on this.
After Gerre Hancock published his book on improvisation, I found that he too began with scales, in a considerably freer approach. Unlike Dupré, Hancock encouraged creative harmonization in any style that takes your fancy in the moment.
That finally made it fun to play scales. When I am practicing free (non-hymn-based) improvisation, I often begin with a few scales – harmonized or contrapuntally oriented (or best of all, both), and let them lead me in whatever direction the ensuing music wants to go. Even when the work at hand is preparation to improvise on a specific tune, I might begin with the scale for the keys I hope to use in the improvisation before beginning to “learn the tune” (playing it in unison, and taking it from there).
Much more could be said about scales. I content myself with a final observation:
Play in and with the Modes.
Work with them in the same manner as major/minor: the scale in the soprano, chords harmonizing each note of the scale, up and down, slowly. Later, the scale in an inner voice or the bass. Do it in as many keys as you can. This remains for me a work in progress. If you ask me to knock out a quick harmonized scale in F sharp Mixolydian with subsequent improvisation, the results would likely be less than professional. But I am working on it.
The secret is to think “Where is Do?” In the above case, Mixolydian has the keynote on Sol, so Do is on B. Five sharps. It also helps – a lot – to notice that Mixolydian is Major with a flat seventh degree. So I can think “F sharp major” and play E naturals. All four of the Modes have near neighbors that are helpful in this manner:
Dorian – like natural Minor, with raised sixth degreeA benefit of this sort of work is that one soon gets a feel for the mode. What chords make a good cadence? What chord combinations work well, which ones not so much? What chords work well with specific scale degrees?
Phrygian – like natural Minor, with lowered second degree
Lydian – like Major, with raised fourth degree
Mixolydian – like Major, with lowered seventh degree
And: What is the characteristic ethos of the mode? Mixolydian has a sober dignity to it that I love: Lydian is the most joyful of modes, even more than Major: Dorian is like Minor but with greater strength and a yearning that comes from the raised sixth degree: Phrygian is strange, something all its own. To explain it I commend to you the magnificent Third Tune of Thomas Tallis (the Third Mode being another name for Phrygian), and the Fantasia on this tune by Vaughan Williams.
That brings me to another benefit of work with the modes: you might start sounding like Vaughan Williams. Or Herbert Howells.
I suspect that these composers got their “sound” in part from long exposure to the Modes – for RVW, it was his work with folksongs; for Howells, his work with the Tudor Church Music project. I can imagine them playing around at a piano with these things, finding the characteristic harmonizations and melodic patterns.