Notes on scales
As I get older and more boring, the mundane seems to get increasingly interesting. Take scales, for instance: at one time, practicing scales didn’t hold a candle next to the drama that were concerti and virtuoso concert pieces.
But now, scales couldn’t be more fascinating. Specifically, four-octave scales in major, minor harmonic, and minor melodic keys.
Simply put, scales are quite complicated, and good intonation is only first base for anyone trying to master them.
Since four-octave scales put the violinist’s hand in high positions, the finger mechanics play a small role, relative to other mechanics such as the thumb, elbow, etc. If you have fat Itzhak hands, like I do, then there’s a lot going on.
It should be noted, when one starts crawling to incredibly high reaches, the finger pressure ought to lessen the higher one gets. At the highest points, the finger pressure is merely that of a harmonic, and good bow control truly takes over in creating sonorous & soaring tones. Again, when the fingers are fat, like mine, the fingers tend to sit between the strings, rather than on the string, squarely. This tactic makes room when the intervals are small: one would have to resort to clumsy finger swapping, otherwise.
Practicing one-finger glissando in perfect fourth intervals, having a leading thumb up/back, predicting the landing-note’s position, is a wonderful routine to get your thumb pulling the hand between positions. If one doesn’t use a kun rest, then I raise the fiddle scroll as this movement is made when going up. When going down, the fiddle is flat, and the elbow should unwind from right to left pulling the finger down the fingerboard. Each of the four fingers should be trained with this exercise.
Tricks for going up
When one starts to approach the highest positions, it’s best not to force the elbow inward. Rather, raise the fiddle until there isn’t any option remaining but to come around with the elbow. This keeps the fingers flat and makes for easy finger mechanics.
In the stratosphere, I consider the thumb to find home-base not on the heel of the neck (despite many a virtuoso saying otherwise), but rather, resting on the overlap of the fiddle’s face, above the rib; above where the wrist can sometimes rest while in third-position. The reason: it makes for possible reaches when the thumb isn’t super long and we are reaching for notes quite high.
For those who have Itzhak hands, I find the second finger needs to land between strings going up for scales that head quite high up into the fingerboard. This ensures that any half steps can be executed without creating a ‘slurp’ in the sound.
Tricks for going down
Life is miserable for those descending a scale and play without a kun rest. But alack and alas, this is the price some of us pay.
Since the fiddle is pointing upward, the first order of business is to lower it. At least slightly. Next, one needs to pay close attention to the elbow, something that will unlock quite a bit of the puzzle.
I like to see my elbow roll left, stepwise, as one comes down a scale from a high position, with the instrument remaining quite flat & stable after the scroll is initially let down slightly. But even more helpful, is to choose a finger (I prefer the second finger) to act as a signal finger, meaning, when that finger is applied, it’s time to suddenly pitch the elbow left a few degrees. This action makes for a more deliberate and trustworthy travel from high to low.
The thumb, once resting above the rib, upon the lip of the fiddle, can’t stay there forever. It needs to move, and it certainly has a great role to play. As the elbow gravitates left, and the signal finger is applied, that’s when the thumb needs to dart to an extreme leading position, first on the heel, then lurched back down the neck toward the scroll. It’s a curious matter, just how aggressive one can pitch the thumb back: one can never error on planting it too back, it seems. The more the merrier.
With a flat violin, a unwinding elbow, and a thumb always ahead of the curve and pulling the hand down, descending a scale can be made quite reliable, albeit they are unfairly more arduous than ascending.
Again, for those who have Itzhak hands, to make half steps devoid of ‘slurps,’ I place my index finger between strings when going down for those scales that are quite high up the fingerboard.
Scales make me furrow my eyebrows, and it’s always scales that make me wish I was a pianist. Can you imagine if pianists had to negotiate a keyboard that got logarithmically more tiny as one went from bottom to top? Yet, that is what us fiddle-players have to do.
Unlike other techniques, scale proficiency seems to be something one has to stick with, day in, day out. If you master scales, it’s short lived, and you’d be foolish to not keep them up.
All in all, there’s much to get out of scales. However, the nuances of what the body needs to do to make them reliable and sonorous, are many.