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Life Without Scales - by Mark Stefani
First of all, just so I don't incur the wrath of every other instructor on the planet (and make my late father turn over in his grave), let me say that I definitely consider the knowledge and study of scales a mandatory component of any well-rounded musician. But having witnessed so many poor improvisers with great scale ability, I often find myself calling this pursuit a "necessary evil." Why?

The reason behind this conclusion is based upon my observation of how players tend to rely on their scale knowledge as sort of a "safety-net" when they improvise, compose, or arrange. I mean, it's fine generally to be aware of the proper harmony in a given situation, but to restrict yourself to a five or seven-tone scale can result in some pretty boring, predictable ideas. In that sense, what was initially meant to represent a certain sense of freedom can ironically become a harmonic "prison" instead!

I'm a firm believer that you are what you practice. If a player devotes a large percentage of study time to scales, especially at the expense of learning something inherently more musical, it can have disastrous results. Of course, many instructors and players will argue that the whole idea in being spontaneously creative is to "be yourself," and that it all starts with scales. Well, in an abstract way that's true, but it's kind of like saying that being able to express yourself with the English language is dependent upon mastery of the alphabet. Now, you can lock yourself in a room for years studying your ABCs and never become conversant enough to even say "hello." The analogy here is that there's much more to a language than just knowledge of its alphabet, and of course, music is also a language.

I think that, by now, you're beginning to see what the evil in the term "necessary evil" stands for. But in defense of scale study, let's also address why it remains a necessary ingredient. The benefits are primarily two-fold:

Technique. Undoubtedly, regular scale practice will increase your overall speed and coordination between both hands. Of course, the flip-side to this is that no one will really wantto hear you play a scale during a live performance (which is what scale practitioners tend to do).

Knowledge. This is a more important benefit, in my opinion, than technique itself. Proper scale practice in all positions will acquaint you with the fingerboard, plus contribute (over a period of time) to your understanding of the principles of music theory. But once again, music theory based on the "hypothetical" rather than the "musical" can also result in abstraction.

Conclusions? Sure. Practice and master your scales, but not at the expense of exploring "real" music. A good game plan might be to limit your scale pursuit to 10 minutes (or less) of every hour that you practice. And remember that you won't lose anything by replacing abstraction with the real thing. As a matter of fact, you will gain enormously by acquiring practical technique and theory specific to your own individuality as a player!


Mark Stefani is a guitarist, teacher, writer, and founder of Vision Music, an educational website offering over 600 pages of FREE learning resources, including guitar lessons by top professionals, jam tracks, articles, songs, sheet music, and more. Visit: http://www.visionmusic.com

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