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Majoring in the Minors: A Summer Practice Project on Minor Scales

As the school year is coming to a close I have had many students ask me: “What should I practice over the summer?” Today I will outline a summer practice project on minor scales that will keep even the most seasoned professional focused, engaged, and on the path to improvement. I recommend that the oboe player taking on this project has reached at minimum an advanced high school student or first or second undergraduate student level of instrument proficiency. 

The goal of this summer practice challenge is to improve facility in all three forms of the minor scale (natural, harmonic, and melodic). Many students spend time practicing their major scales but often neglect the minor scales. The first step in this project is to establish a baseline tempo for each minor key. Now this next point is critically important: The baseline tempo is the fastest tempo you can play each form of a given minor scale with good intonation, even tone, and smooth technique. You must be able to play the scale in full range (starting on the tonic, ascending to the highest note you can play on the instrument in a given key, descending to the lowest note you play on the instrument in a given key, and ending back on the tonic) in the following articulation patterns. Each pattern will be in 16th notes.

For example:

All slurred
A minor scale (all slurred)

All tongued
A minor scale (all tongued)

Slurred in groups of 4
A minor scale (slurred in groups of 4)

Slur 3, tongue 1
A minor scale (slur 3, tongue 1)

Slur 2, tongue 2
A minor scale (slur 2, tongue 2)

Tongue 1, slur 3
A minor scale (1 tongue, 3 slur)

Tongue 2, slur 2
A minor scale (tongue 2, slur 2)

Slur 2, Slur 2

A minor scale (slur 2, slur 2)

Once you establish your baseline tempo for each minor scale, set a challenging but reasonable target tempo for each scale. Look at your calendar and set your start and end dates for the challenge. If you can currently play Bb minor cleanly at quarter note= 80, then a tough, but achievable goal for the end of the summer might be to play it cleanly at quarter note= 115 whereas trying to be able to play it at 160 might be unrealistic.

I recommend focusing on building minor scale technique over the summer because it can be overwhelming to try to tackle ALL major and minor scales in the articulation patterns outlined above at the same time.  Having a more focused project makes it less intimidating and trust me, practicing each minor scale in all three forms in all these articulation patterns will provide PLENTY of material to occupy your practice sessions.  Remember to focus on QUALITY over QUANTITY. Choose 1 or 2 minor scales to work on each week and set tempo goals for each scale. For example, in week one your goal might be to get Bb minor from quarter=80 to quarter= 90. Record yourself playing all three forms of each scale in the articulation patterns listed above. Check out this post with tips for recording yourself. Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your recordings:

  1. Is the intonation consistent across all registers? Is it consistent in both the ascending and descending versions of the scale? If there are inconsistencies, what will you do to correct them?

  2. Is the tone consistent across all registers? Does the high register sound ringing and vibrant or does it sound thin and pinched? Is the low register round and rich or is it spread and flabby? If there are inconsistencies, what will you do to correct them?

  3. Is the articulation clear and crisp? Can you keep that clarity if you play more staccato or more legato? Is the articulation even across all registers?  If there are inconsistencies, what will you do to correct them?

  4. Is the technique even across all registers? Is there excessive finger noise of little “blops” and “blips” indicating uneven transitions between notes? If there are inconsistencies, what will you do to correct them?

Be aware that mindful hyper- focused practice like this can be mentally taxing so take a break every 20 minutes or so to let yourself relax and reset. I would start out with one 45 minute scale practice period divided into two 20 minute work periods separated by a 5 minute break. Set timers and adhere to them. After a week or two at 45 minutes, expand it to 60 minutes if you feel you can handle it. If not, no worries, make the most of the 45 minutes. If you do choose 60 minutes, I would divide it into a 20 minute work period, 5 minute break, 15 minute work period, 5 minute break, 15 minute work period.

Give this a try and let me know how it goes? I am taking on this challenge as well and will post updates on my progress in order to hold myself accountable! Tag me on social media @clarabloodoboe

Happy Practicing!

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