To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

A recent question on a music teacher’s forum asked how to motivate two middle school students who won’t practice well their assigned scales and etudes even though the teacher is happy with how their pieces are progressing. This is a rather more complex issue than you might think.

First of all, I have interviewed an awful lot of teachers and Famous Musicians and many seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. I did scales and etudes and by God you will, too.
  2. They traumatized me with scales and etudes and I won’t inflict that on anyone.

I had both kinds of these teachers myself. Neither of these philosophies works well and here’s why.

Philosophy 1.

Teacher being right and student being wrong is not a good way to get through to your students. The question here seems to be if the student is going to do what you say or not. Expecting obedience is a parent’s job. Yours is to help your students get the best possible result. If that means forgoing a scale or two, especially if their pieces are going well, no one is going to die. There will be plenty of time for scales and etudes when they are old enough to appreciate their value. Middle school students just don’t/can’t/won’t and perhaps shouldn’t. They don’t care how their smart phones work – they just want to use them. They can learn about code when they get older.

There is also something else to consider – do you realize how many things they have to do in the course of their schooling that they don’t want to do? I include even getting up too early in the morning when many studies show that adolescents do better when they start school at 9am or even later. Here in Italy, and I am told also in the USA and other countries, these kids are so burdened with homework and outside activities (many already aimed at getting them into a good college) that having to face yet another thing they don’t want to do is just the last straw. And I can’t blame them. So the “Procrustean Bed” school of teaching (one size must fit all, whether you have to stretch them or trim their legs a little) is guaranteed to fail for most of your students who simply can’t bring themselves to practice what they don’t want to.

“Ah,” you say, “but some students willingly practice what I give them to do, so these others are just undisciplined.” Yes, there are some perfect students out there. Somewhere. But the world is also divided in another more-than-one-camp. There are people (I am not one of them but I have lived with some of them and have had lots of students like this) who just cannot do something they don’t like or don’t feel like doing. It’s useless to argue, plead, bargain, bribe (which may work for a while), threaten, whatever. It’s simply physically impossible for them. It isn’t a question of discipline. Plus, can we really expect middle school students to have the discipline we have now (and probably didn’t have at their age either)?

Philosophy 2

This consists of taking every single beautiful piece that your student will learn and making a study out of it. Yuck. This was an important principle of the method I use when I started using it (back in the Middle Ages). I found out fairly quickly that this didn’t work very well for my students when they got to more advanced pieces. Why? Because, not having prepared for, say, the Bach Double’s difficulties with judicious use of etudes and scales, the piece was too difficult for them and remained so in their minds even when this was no longer so. My teacher (the old school type who had studied with Sevcik but never assigned me any of his studies) did this to me with my first concerto. I always avoid listening to that beautiful piece – too much baggage.

So what to do? I take the middle road, as the Buddhists say. I do use scales and etudes and yes, I do have my share of non-practicers or not-so-good-practicers. But I have gotten sneaky. The trick is to make your students realize and admit out loud that they won’t do something well that they don’t like. So therefore the only solution is for them to find something to like about whatever annoying task you are giving them which will make it easier to face. For example: “Hmm,” you say, “about that problem you’re having with that particular passage in your recital piece, how would you feel about a really cool little etude/scale/exercise I have that will help you fix it?”

Treat them like the students you want them to be: ask them where they are having problems (they won’t solve a problem unless they admit they have one) and offer solutions and exercises to resolve these issues. And then get them to commit to a plan of action. If they won’t commit, then tell them that it’s going to be a lot harder to get where they want to go, but they can try anyway. And then you let it go. Let them think about it.

Teaching isn’t something you do to people, it’s something you do with them – especially budding adolescents. If they don’t agree with what you want them to do, they probably won’t do it. You have to be more of a coach and mentor than a dictator. That’s if you want to get them onto your side. You will also have to admit that there will be some students that you will never get through to even if you stand on your head and spin around. You win some, you lose some.

I also try to use good practical examples and pieces they want to play to get them to view scales and etudes in a more benign light. For example, I read in one of Laurie Niles’ blogs on Violinist.com a brilliant idea: “Joy to the World,” a descending D major scale which is a perfect example of how scales form music. I now always use this (thanks, Laurie!) when I want to convince a student of the value scales. It usually works. But the best thing I have found that brings home to my students the value of scales is Vivaldi’s “Summer,” which I have used in group class. They all were dying to play it – just the orchestra part. They loved it. Uh-oh. Scales. If you play one note out of tune, you wreck it for everyone. Guess what happened? I’ll leave it to your imagination.

We have to be flexible and recognize that we can win a battle but lose the war. If we make too big a fuss about not doing enough technique, some adolescents may decide the whole enterprise isn’t worth the bother. You can explain the “why” of doing scales and etudes until you’re blue in the face, but they have to feel and understand the specific need for them – something they may not be capable of until they are more mature. We also have to be careful about asking too much of our middle school students who are often overwhelmed with schoolwork, growth spurts and hormones.  After all, if that student is doing a good job on his piece but doesn’t practice the studies as we would like (after making every reasonable effort to convince him), do those studies really matter so much in the overall scheme of things?

By all means do a sales job on the scales and technical studies but if they don’t buy it now, rest assured that they will sooner or later if they continue to study the instrument. I have found that once my students have gotten on the other side of middle school, they become a lot more reasonable.

The best thing to do with our intransigent practicers is point out that while they can’t really change what happens to them in life, they can change their attitude towards it and then we show them how to do this. And that’s what we’re here for – to try to help our students get the right perspective and attitude to turn what seems (and often really is) drudgery into something that they see as a means to an end. A nice end.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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18 February 2018

8 thoughts on “To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

  1. Tarmo Riutta

    I admire again your warmly wise text.

    As a young and angry teacher I was on the first side. Then years after too much the second. Nowadays for the students playing a scale is a natural part of becoming familiar with a new key.

    Reply
  2. M. Lee Alexander

    Hi Eloise, thanks much for this useful article! It has application to all kinds of teaching, as every subject has less exciting aspects. For example, it’s hard to get college composition students excited about semicolons.
    I recall that it helped when my flute and piano teachers both told me to think of scales as performance pieces–to pretend I am performing them on stage in front of a big audience, and try to make them as beautiful-sounding as possible, and not just something to grind through to get on to the “real” music.

    Reply
  3. Eloise Hellyer Post author

    For the record, I love semicolons. And colons, too. Hope I use them correctly! Your flute and piano teachers sound like they were very wise. Everything is real music as long as it’s beautiful and played with love. Thanks for your comment!

    Reply
  4. Carol de la Haye

    Wise counsel and mentorship on an often contentious issue. I use fun and/or interesting ways, tailored to fit each personality, to ‘seduce’ reluctant pupils into doing at least some technical work, sort of like sneaking finely minced vegetables into the main dish… Love your examples of how parts of Vivaldi’s Summer and Joy to the World are basically scales in fancy dress, and the basis of so much ‘real music’, as are, for example, Mozart’s limitless use of scales and arpeggios — eye-opening revelations to a pupil. I just love these teacher-enriching blogs of yours, Eloise; they’re some of the wisest things I’ve ever read.

    Reply
  5. Dusty Sanoon

    I agree, I usually give my students an etude and tell them to give it back to me when they have prepare some part of it. I’ll ask in class if they have prepared anything from their etude, and usually they’ll say they are still working on it or they are ready to show me.

    Reply
    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thanks for your comment! I think yours is an excellent, low-stress (for everyone) and effective way to teach.

      Reply

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