Bag of Tricks: Teaching Beginning String Players Scales Part 1


One of my professors (Dr. Ted Ashton) used to refer to ways to teach concepts as your "bag of tricks."  As you would teach more, you would continue to develop this "bag of tricks" so that in many different situations you would be able to teach lots of concepts in many different ways.  In addition to coming up with your own bag of tricks, it can be really useful to find out the ways other teachers teach the same concepts.  This especially useful since students will all think in a variety of ways, and it may be that the way one teacher teaches a concept is easier for one student to understand than the way you teach it.

I'd like to start sharing some of my "bag of tricks," as I've begun to find some very effective ways of teaching certain concepts.  Today I wanted to focus on some approaches I've had to teaching scales to beginning students.  Some of this may take longer than a lesson to discuss with a student, and I find that sometimes we have start more slowly than even being able to do a scale.

Within the first week of a beginner student, I hope to get the student using their bow with fingers on the string, as this gets them started bowing and fingering right away to build those skills.  An excellent way of helping them get comfortable with both skills is through scales.  I start students out with what I refer to as the "Mini Scale."  Basically a tetrachord, this has the student playing whatever string they feel most comfortable (or sometimes more if they are already feeling pretty comfortable).  They start open string, then play 1st finger, then 2nd, then 3rd.  They will then play that backwards: 3rd finger, 2nd, 1st, and then open.  Doing this very slowly will help them develop the technique level in their skill development (see my article on skill acquisition).  The more slow and focused repetition of these skills, the better engrained they will be in muscle memory, making playing things with these fingers easier.

After students feel really comfortable with this Mini Scale, I introduce them to their first "big" scale, the D Major 1 Octave.  Although the D-String is usually trickier to use at the beginning for a beginning Violin student, due to the shape of the bridge and because of this the closeness of the D-String to both the G and A Strings, I love to use the "All for Strings" Method Book by Robert S. Frost and Gerald E. Andersen which starts note reading on the D-String.  Because of that, I get the students used to that string close to the beginning of their playing experience.

To help figure out how to play the D 1 Octave, I relate playing the scale to playing a familiar game: Mario Brothers.  The Mini Scale is kind of like Mario or Luigi hoping around.  We start out with the Open D, then hop up to D1, then D2, then D3, and then hop all the way back down.

When we do the 1 Octave Scale, we have a string change that ends up being like a big obstacle that we can only jump over using Mario's special flying squirrel tale thing (I've never really understood why that worked that way: was Mario a flying squirrel?).  Just like before, we go all the way to the top, and then we hop all the way back down.  This usually takes a few tries for the student to get, but after a bit, the student can usually play slowly through a D 1 Octave Scale.

The advantage to being able to do this "big" scale is that students start to feel comfortable with the idea of going down from A0 to D3, and start thing of the scale in terms of going up and down and not just playing fingers.  This helps when we start doing note reading, especially when we start Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

To help solidify these notes, we'll start playing the D Major Scale with long notes together, and with lots of variations.  The first really fun one for kids is "What's your favorite food?"  We take the scale and put it to rhythms of foods they like.  Some examples below:

The main goal with this is to very how they play it (varied repetition) so that each time they play it it seems still fresh and fun.  This can be a great way of introducing rhythms for songs also, such as in 
"Mary Had a Little Lamb:"
"Mary had a (Cho-co-late)"

Other variations I've used are Scale Rounds (playing the scale at different times with each other to create harmony), and the latest I've started is "Hot Potato" scales.

With the "Hot Potato" Scale, you play the first note of the scale and then student plays it.  You go back and forth with each note until the scale is finished.  This forces the student to think and pay attention to where they are at in the scale, and is a fun game for the student.

Any other ideas for teaching scales?  I'm always looking to expand my personal "Bag of Tricks,", so comment below, and let me know anything you use for teaching these basic comments.

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