interview with Simon Fischer: Scales

November 7, 2012, 1:49 PM · Do you need a master plan for scales, for yourself or for your students?

That is the aim of British pedagogue Simon Fischer's new scale-studies book, "Scales." The book, which came out earlier this year, is available through Simon Fischer's website or through Sheet Music Plus.

Simon Fischer

While it includes all the basic one-, two-, three- and four-octave scales and arpeggios, the book lays out a detailed scheme for understanding intonation as well as exercises for building solid shifts and finger motion in scales.

Simon Fischer talks about his own youthful struggles with scales, about how he came to see scales as invaluable, and about the systems he has laid out in "Scales."

Laurie: Do you remember your first scale book? What was it? Did you like the book?

Simon: I remember it well. In fact I still have it: Comprehensive Scale Manual by Hans Wessely, with my name written on the front cover by my mother. I was using this around the age of 10 or 11. The format of the book is typical -- full of black ink.

No I didn’t like it! It was to be avoided at all costs. The trouble with scale books like this is that, even though they provide handy sequences, they basically give you only fingerings. The rest is up to you. If you don’t know fancy ways of breaking things down into smaller units and into their constituent parts to solve the actual problems -- it means you just have to play the scales over and over again. It always took me ages to get round to practicing them, and when I did, I lost interest all too quickly and moved on.

When I was about 14, I was put on to the Sevcik scale book, which is really a compilation of scale-type Sevcik exercises, helpfully put together all in one place. This seemed slightly more interesting, since it was varied. Still, it looked a bit severe, and I was put off, just looking at it. I did practice some of it from time to time.

Then came the Carl Flesch book from about the age of 15. You realize how simple the Wessely is, once you see the double-stops in the Flesch. There are various things that I wish were different in the Flesch. For example, the double-stops that go up and down, instead of once up and once down; and four-octave scales are missing (something Rostal tried to address in editing the new version, but without really succeeding). Nevertheless, it is quintessential.

Still, the Flesch is most useful only for the most advanced players; for everybody else it should be a scale book that you graduate to. How perfect, if within 45 minutes or so, you can play a complete key each day, as Flesch intended you to, covering all the scales on one string, in three octaves, and all the double-stops and harmonics. But who can do that? Who can play them well enough without too many hitches along the way? That would mean playing them in tune, with even sound on each note, with even rhythm, etc. Only the very top level of players can do that. For anyone not so far along the road, it takes too long to play a whole key. Even if you do just a bit each day, it can be arduous and unrewarding work.

What you need are stepping stones across the river, and that’s where scale-studies come in – ways of breaking the overall task down into more manageable challenges. For example: one-octave scales on one string. In my book, "Scales," the actual straight-up-and-down scale is the final stage, after various preliminary building stages. When I watch my students playing the final stage perfectly easily, all I can think is how my attitude to practicing scales might have been different had I had this book when I was a teenager.

Laurie: How was your attitude toward scales, as a teenager?

Simon: I always hated them, particularly the Flesch! I remember standing on the train platform at eight in the morning on my way to my weekly masterclass with Yfrah Neaman at the Guildhall, shivering not just from the Autumn cold, but from fear that I would be asked to play scales, which I had put off practicing all week until finally it had ended up that I had not practiced them at all. As a student, my battle was against tightness and tension. The Flesch just seemed too difficult to play well. Playing music was different – somehow you made it all work however you had to do it. Like most students, for me scales were always something to be put off.

Laurie: What turned you around, what convinced you that scales were worthwhile?

Simon: In the ten years after finishing studying, I spent a lot of time working on basic mechanics rather than on scales -- exercises for tone, shifting, string crossing, intonation, and so on. As part of that work, once or twice a year I would go through a brief phase of practicing scales. Each time, I was pleased to see that they had improved a lot since the last time, without having practiced them at all in between. I would find I could play a scale in thirds more in tune, faster, and with a more relaxed hand, than ever before; but all I had done was practiced exercises in thirds. Four-octave scales would be far easier than before, but only because I had practiced shifting exercises and finger patterns at the top of the G and E strings.

At that time I would rarely ask students to play scales, either. Later, I was pleased to discover that Dounis had had the same approach, also preferring to work on the elements of the scales rather than on the scales themselves. Not that my students did not all have their scale books. When I was first teaching (while still a student in London), I expected my students to do what I had never been interested in doing myself, and so they all had to use the Carl Flesch.

Then in America, I discovered the Galamian scale book, which was unavailable and unknown in London at that time. When I started serious teaching, I used to buy 20 copies at a time (of both the single and double-stop scales) direct from Patelson’s in New York, and had them shipped over to the U.K. at great expense and passed on to my pupils. The Flesch was history.

Then after a few years of everyone using the Galamian (which I never really liked, but which was the most useful book I could find), one day a 15-year-old Czechoslovakian student of mine gave me a present. It was the scale book by Zczislaw Jahnke -- completely unknown then in the West. From then on, the Galamian was history for me.

As it turned out, many of my excellently-trained Polish violinist friends were brought up on the Jahnke. It is a book of scale studies, not just written-out scales. Both it and the Hrimaly, which is similarly an excellent book of scale studies, were the reason I didn’t write my own book sooner. I had decided that in these two books, the job had already been done.

But I still had other justifications for not practicing scales. When I was a student, a friend who had recently won an international competition (and is very well known today) said to me, "If you asked me to play the Brahms Concerto for you, I would be perfectly happy; if you asked me to play a three-octave scale in C major, I would fall flat on my face!" She is a fantastic violinist, I reasoned; so if I don’t practice my scales, it doesn’t mean my career need suffer.

There were also plenty of important players or teachers who, instead of viewing scales as the cornerstone of technique, doubted whether there was any point in playing them at all. So I thought that by not practicing them, but by improving them anyway, I was getting the best of both worlds.

I once asked the pianist Alfred Brendel how he kept his technique in such excellent condition. He was a bit over 70, and I had just heard him, at very close quarters, play a recital with superb technical control. Did he practice scales and exercises? No, he said. He had never played scales or exercises in his whole life. He said he practiced everything from the point of view of musical control, trying to find how to make the music sound as he wanted it to, and all the technique came from that.

The pianist Daniel Barenboim says that practicing scales is positively bad for you, since when you come to a scale in a piece, you might play just a scale rather than music. Though I am a big admirer of Barenboim otherwise, this idea does seem crazy to me. It misses an essential point of scale-playing: that you must play them musically. Scales are full of inner musical tensions and resolutions. I’d bet the same people who play a "scale" instead of "music" would probably play in the same unmusical way, even if they did not practice scales!

So finally, in the last 15 years or so, I began to realize how good it is to practice scales and arpeggios themselves. After all the building work of practicing the elements – shifting, intonation, string crossing and so on – the next step is to practice scales and connect everything into a streamlined whole. There is simply nothing to replace what regular scale-practice brings.
All the previous ideas about saving time by practicing the elements separately are obviously correct, but what I had not fully realized was the benefit that comes into the whole of your playing when you do practice scales regularly. Everything feels easier. Everything requires less practice to get it really good than it would otherwise have needed. You feel in good condition all the time, even at the start of your practice.

These days I regularly work with students on scales, whether or not an exam is coming up! The perfect day’s practice, if you have time, is first exercises, then scales, then studies, then pieces.

Laurie: What did you want to do in this scale book that you felt had not been done before? Are there a few things adopted from other systems as well?

Simon: My book, "Scales," contains everything that is in any standard book, with one- and two-octaves scales as well. Part 3 is a self-contained, normal scale book in itself, with all the usual three-octave scales and arpeggios and chromatics. Part 5 is the same with four-octave scales. The chief rhythm and bowing patterns that you find in the Flesch, or taken to their logical extreme in the Galamian, are there also. It is also naturally influenced or inspired by some of the best features of Jahnke and Hrimaly.

But the truly original feature of Scales, for which I can take no credit since it is not my original idea (though I have added to it slightly), is the way you set up the intonation before you play the complete scale. You begin by playing only the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale, then add the others in a particular order. Dorothy DeLay taught scales in this way, as did the great cellist Pablo Casals.

"Scales" is the very first scale book in history to have this setting-up-the-intonation written in to the actual notes of scales, so that the player can read them off the page. It was that idea that inspired me to write a scale book in the first place. Then, with this intonation-structuring as the basis of the book, I was able to add favorite practice methods by incorporating them into fully written-out scales, too.

Laurie: Your scheme for understanding and thinking about intonation in every single key is something I've not seen written out before. How did you come up with this? Do you feel intonation can be taught to someone who has a hard time hearing it?

Simon: A very clever friend of mine spent an entire week number-crunching different frequency calculations to try to see how this scheme worked. It was not that he disagreed with it, but that he couldn’t understand why he liked it, and how it all made such perfect sense to him. In the end, he decided that it was the same tuning system as used by J. S. Bach. I have no idea whether he is correct or not, so this remains only a pleasant thought.

As far as I know, what I have written is exactly what Suzuki or Casals taught: the principle of treating accidentals as ‘leading notes’: sharps lead up, flats lead down, C is a perfect fourth above G, B is the leading note to C, F is close to E.

Of course, how exactly to tune each note – which depends on the key and the context and lots of other things – is another discussion. In playing music, especially with the piano, half the time you have to play completely tempered. Even without the piano, sometimes you don’t want a sharp to be too sharp, or a flat too flat.

I am not the number-crunching type. To me, this simple approach sounds right to the ear, and I have left it at that. If the numbers told me something else, I would still go for what sounded in tune, rather than what the calculations or system insisted was "correct."

As for teaching intonation, I’ve never known anyone who is serious about wanting to improve their playing, whose intonation cannot be improved. So yes, intonation seems very much teachable or learnable. It starts with better listening, and then in having notes to relate other notes to – both aurally and in the feelings of the finger-relationships.

Laurie: Your two-octave scales use all possible finger combinations, so you have three different ways to play the same scale. Why do it this way?

Simon: It’s just a good uniform-intonation exercise. If you use different fingerings to play the same scale, you instantly notice anything that is out of tune, but which you have become used to hearing as correct through sheer repetition of it. Suddenly you realise that a note, which before had seemed correct, is in fact very different from the note you played with the other fingering. The tuning of any note should be an ideal that has nothing to do with which finger is used to play it.

You get the same two-octave scales in the Hrimaly, but not with one fingering after another. In Hrimaly, the differently-fingered scales are in different sections, on different pages, so the uniform-intonation element is unfortunately lost.

Laurie: For what level student is your scale book? Is it meant for the professional as well as the student?

Simon: It is not a book for complete beginners, but then no scale book is. Players who are somewhere between beginner and intermediate level could benefit greatly from three-quarters of it. If you can play any scales at all, then you can play most of this book. For the professional it is a complete must. This book gives you the opportunity to take your playing on to new levels of complete security.

Now that I can practice from my own "Scales," I find that rather than having to force myself to do them, I can’t stop. I have to drag myself off them when I have run out of time -- it is all so interesting! The variety of the material makes you want to keep turning the pages to see what else you might do. Perhaps anyone would feel like that, playing from their own scale book! But that doesn’t explain my friends and colleagues reporting the same thing for themselves.

Also, now that "Scales" is in print, I no longer have to beg, bully, cajole and endlessly try to inspire my students to practice in certain ways. For example, if I were to say, "This is how to set up the intonation in A major. Now do the same thing in all the other keys!" Well, most students just won’t do it. Or, "Practice shifts as follows: now do that on all your scales and arpeggios!" Perhaps one or two of your best students will do this, but the rest won’t. With "Scales," they can just put the book on the stand and play what’s there.

In "Scales," I included exercises for intonation, for timing the shifts, for moving the fingers at greater speed, and so on. I call all this sort of work "written-out, excellent practice." If you just play what is there and improve it – even if you don’t think about it or know what you are doing – you will be practicing scales excellently. Then, when you play the normal scale as presented in parts 3 or 5 (or in any other scale book), you'll notice massive improvement.

Laurie: At what point should a student start doing scales? And at what point can they stop doing scales -- or is this a lifelong discipline?

Simon: Start as soon as you can! Never stop! But for that to be possible, the practice has to be creative and therefore interesting and engaging, not just repetitious. And you need to climb up the ladder of difficulty rung by rung, and not try to jump straight to the top. Again, that is why most players can benefit from a scale-studies book much more than from any straight scale book.

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