Scales. We all sing them. Some of us love them. Others of us, not so much. But there’s no denying that the practice of singing scales is a basic building block in virtually every system of vocal technique. As it should be—a well-sung scale demonstrates that the singer has mastered a variety of types of coordination necessary for healthy singing: breath use, registration, vowel adjustment, etc. So, we all practice our scales every day, sometimes for years on end.
But do these scales bore us or excite us? Are they routine or filled with variety? How often do you step out of your comfort zone (perhaps an “old standby” five- and nine-tone scale) and try something a little more exotic? And challenging?
The answer may depend, of course, on your teacher. One of my students once revealed to me that her prior teacher (who was quite famous and taught at a major metropolitan conservatory) had only ever had her sing two scales. Always practiced the same way, on the same syllables. This student had worked with this teacher for five years on these two scales without variation. (More distressingly, these two scales were the only two exercises the teacher had given her, period!)
In contrast, another time, I observed a different well-known local teacher give a master class. As she vocalized the student, although she basically used only one scale (a five-tone scale), she introduced a multitude of different variations on this simple melodic profile, explaining exactly what response each variation was designed to elicit from the singer.
If your approach (or your teacher’s approach) to scales is more like my first student’s, here are a few ideas for expanding your repertoire of scales. There are, after all, so many different types of scales and countless ways to practice them! (Of course, the varieties that will be useful and appropriate to you are dependent on your level of technical development and your vocal challenges.)
Number of notes. How many notes do you sing in your daily scales? Five-tone and nine-tone scales are most common, with the one often preceding the other in the same scale exercise. But scales from the vocal methods of the 19th Century (when florid bel canto repertoire was at its peak) contain virtually every number of notes from three notes to a full two-octave’s worth, with appropriate rhythmic adjustments so that the scale comes out “even”. The ability to incorporate these longer notes (e.g., an eighth note followed by two sixteenths), and then return to the scale while maintaining steady rhythm, is often even more challenging than a scale of steady sixteenth notes.
Type of scale. Do you confine your scales to the major mode? If, like most singers, you do, try singing a minor scale sometime. A bit further afield, experiment with a whole-tone scale or a pentatonic scale. Perhaps best of all, try some chromatic scales! (More on this “forgotten scale” in another post.)
Tempi. At what tempi do you practice your scales? More than one or two? Do you ever get out your metronome and see what range of tempi you are capable of singing, steadily and accurately? The famous 19th Century vocal pedagogue, Manuel Garcia, wrote that singers should work to achieve sixteenth notes to the tempi of quarter note = 132. That’s seriously fast. How many of us can actually do that today—besides famous professionals like Cecilia Bartoli and Vivica Genaux?
Starting pitches. Do you always sing scales progressively, going up or down sequentially by half notes? Progressing by half step is certainly is the established practice, and there are good reasons for it. But do you sometimes find yourself “ratcheting up” the tension with every ascending half-step, or losing energetic body connection with every descending one? Try starting your scales on non-consecutive notes, and see what you discover.
Dynamic level. Do you always practice your scales mezzo forte? Or forte? (You always know that a singer has a problem when he or she has only two dynamic levels: loud, and louder…) As a student at Indiana University, I remember a scale that I would often hear coming from the practice rooms of students of Virginia Zeani (a celebrated Violetta in La Traviata). It was a 13-tone scale (an octave plus a sixth), sung twice in one breath—the first time forte, and the second time piano. What a wonderful challenge!
Articulation. What articulations do you practice while you sing scales? One of my favorite pages in Mathilde Marchesi’s Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method is the page (below) on which she lists the twelve different ways her students were expected to practice their scales. Although some of them are likely familiar (e.g., staccato, legato), others are probably new. For example, she had her students practice scales while accenting not only the first note in a pattern of four sixteenth notes (most singers’ usual practice), but the second, third, and fourth notes as well. How many of us have ever tried that?
Vowels. Do you sing all of your scales on the ah vowel? Certainly, in the bel canto repertoire, florid cadenzas are most often sung on this vowel. However, in the Baroque repertoire, where melismatic passages often occur within the text, the eh and oh vowels are also sung. So it makes sense to practice scales on these vowels as well.
So here is today’s practice challenge. Choose just one new scale—or one new way to practice a familiar scale—to add to your practice routine this week.
Please share your experiments, or your favorite scales. Happy practicing!