The Unsung Beauty and Utility of the Two Octave Scale

What the heck are we doing here?

When I lived in Idaho I took a visitor out for a drive around the area surrounding Pocatello. She was not impressed. She wanted to know why the heck we were driving around this Godforsaken countryside. Somehow she missed the 8-9000 foot mountains, cool rock formations, the ability to see weather that was happening hundreds of miles away and the sunlight blasting its way through the clouds. Well, one person’s Godforsaken country is another man’s paradise, and I’m planting my flag in the land of the two octave scale!

Why are they so beautiful? Oh, let me count the ways!

  • They’re simple! Just stack (almost) four tetrachords together and you have yourself a two octave scale. This makes them manageable for learners at almost any stage in their journey. Because they’re simple, it makes it easy to change focus from intonation to sound production to parallel motion to whatever you want to work on. Many people give two octave scales short shrift because they’re so simple, but I’ve never had a single learner walk in the door for their first lesson and play one perfectly in tune, with a great sound, smooth string crossings, well prepared finger patterns going up and down – ok. I’ll stop here. In other words, why go on to three or even four octave scales if the lowly two octave scale isn’t perfect?
  • Transposing and playing two octave scales in major and minor from half to 7th position (Ab to G on the violin, Db to C on the viola) familiarizes students with these positions. Thinking of these scales in finger patterns rather than keys helps students overcome the fear of playing in different keys and shows them that keys (in their rawest state, with apologies to Rameau!) are simply transpositions of other keys that they’re already familiar with.
  • They’re great for playing with partners. Here are some ways to do this:
    • Playing scales in canon separated by thirds is a great way to build listening skills. There’s an entire world of possibilities here. This amazing video shows you a few of them:
    • Improvisation games can add some fun and novelty to the process, and give the learner some control over the learning process. Some possibilities are changing articulation, contact point, tempo, etc. The “leader” plays four or eight preparation notes in the style and tempo they want and the follower jumps in afterwards.
    • One learner can play a drone tone while the other plays the scale. The “droner” can help their partner assess intonation. Just be nice.
  • You can add them onto other exercises and create “super exercises”. (I know that sounds kind of Tony Robbins. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Tony’s wonderful. Just a little high energy.) Here’s an example:
    • Harmonic shifting exercise plus 2 octave scales (I do solemnly swear to provide a video)
  • Once the student is comfortable with major and minor, other modes can be introduced

A couple of caveats:

  • Ascending and descending scales are two different skills. Teach them separately. There is time to prepare individual fingers when ascending, which makes it much easier. The student has to prepare the entire finger pattern when descending, something I find most students have difficulty with at first.
  • Don’t ask the student to focus on more than one thing at a time. Asking them to watch contact point, not lose sound at the tip and play in tune all at the same time is a recipe for failure.

Next Time: Harmonic Shifting Exercise Back to School Edition – Fast, Easy and (Nearly) Silent Warm-Ups!

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

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