Thursday, March 30, 2017

5 Tips for Melodic Minor Scales

I've been stressing out about a big audition I have coming up that will determine what orchestra I make it into and where my seat in the orchestra will be.  We are required to play a prepared piece (in my case, Concerto Grosso in D Minor by Vivaldi), and two three octave scales (in my case, B minor and C melodic minor).

Melodic minors are very popular among string pieces.  If you don't know, a melodic minor scale is different going up from going down, which is rather unusual.  The sixth and seventh notes are raised a half step while ascending the scale, and then lowered again on the way down the scale.

Sleepers Wake by Bach includes examples of a melodic minor (in D, if I'm not mistaken).

The trouble with melodic minors is that it sounds very different going up from going down.  Here's an example played on the piano.

Add the three octave element, and you have a pretty challenging scale for a string player to manage.

Here are some tips for mastering melodic minor scales and scales in general when practicing for an audition.  These can help with intonation, confidence, and precision in your playing.

#1: The One Octave Approach

If you have to play a certain scale for multiple octaves, master it in the easiest octave you have first.  Play it seven times over and over again slowly, and really hone in on the sound.  When you feel more comfortable with the one octave scale, add in the second octave.  

Do one octave, listen carefully, and do the second, trying to match the pitches.  If certain pitches are not sounding exactly right, play them down an octave, lock in the sound, and then try and find the pitch the octave up.

Once the second octave is sounding relatively in tune, try playing both octaves together.  This part can be really tricky for melodic minor scales since going up is different from going down.  But if you've heard yourself play the first octave over and over again, you should be able to trust your ear and know what it should sound like in two octave form.

Add in the rest of the octaves incrementally one by one until you've got it all down.

Smiling Standing Man Playing Violin by Gray Stone Wall

#2: Listen to Your Scale

This kind of plays off the benefits of the last tip, where you played your scale comfortably over and over again.  If you really are having a hard time getting that part even down, it can help to listen to someone who knows more what they're doing play the scale themselves so your ear can get used to this.

Melodic scales sound a little bit unnatural, so this step is especially important when working with those.

Try playing the scale for yourself on the piano if you know how, because not only will you hear the pitches with clear intonation, but seeing the keys can help you visualize where your half steps are.

app, earbuds, earphones

#3: Duh, Duh-Duh, Duh

I really cannot think of a better way to describe this method, so that's the title we're going with...

This technique involves playing the first pitch of your scale, lifting your bow (or resetting or whatever your instrument requires), playing the first note plus the second note, resetting, playing the first note, second note, and third note, resetting, etc. all the way up the scale.

This one really helps with relative pitch because you hear how the notes should sound one after another and it can help with fingering because of the intense repetition.

cellist, cello, classical music

#4: Playing with a Tuner

If you have an app like InsTuner or another similar tuner that can sense vibration and tell you if you are flat or sharp, this can really be a helpful tool for locking in intonation. 

Set up your tuner and play your notes with very long bows (for string instruments) and pay attention to if you are sharp or flat.  Adjust your fingerings accordingly and if the problem persists, mark in the troublesome pitches in your music.  

Sometimes a scale can sound in tune because the notes are relatively in tune, but if your starting point isn't right, the whole scale may be a little sharp or flat.

Woman in Gray Cardigan Playing a Violin during Daytime

#5: Overachieve 

A popular saying when I was in elementary school was "shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you will land among the stars".  

This is very true with scales and auditions in general.  You want to leave a margin of error because there is always the chance you won't do your best, and if you're nervous, the fact is that you are almost guaranteed to under perform.

So learn your scale really well, and then learn it really fast.  Learn it with lots of slurs.  Learn it an octave higher than you need to.  That way, when you don't do your best, you will still be doing awesome because your best is just really extra.

colorful, colourful, galaxy

Whatever audition you are working on or scale you are trying to master, remember that patience is key.  Be kind to yourself, and remember that learning something like an instrument is a difficult thing to do and requires lots of time and commitment. 

You can do it!


  1. Good luck! I'm a violinist, too (and writer...we seem to share a lot of similar interests!). Scales are particularly stressing for me because there's that constant doubt of: "Finger here? Or here? Whoops, forgot to shift." *leap of faith* But these are good tips; I'll have to try them for my next audition.

    Also, is it just me or is the second violinist's (fourth picture) bow hand look off? o.O

    1. That's awesome! Thank you!

      Yeah, it does look a little strange. As I was sifting through stock images of violinists I was struck by how painfully bad some of the models were at looking like they knew what they were doing XD