One Step at a Time
Nicolas Richard offers some thoughts on practicing scales
The first thing I ever played on the bassoon was a scale from open F to low F. I didn’t know how to play a B flat yet, so a C major scale emerged – starting on the 4th degree… It’s only in retrospect that I realized that this moment in the dining room of my first teacher, Yvonne Kershaw, would form the foundation of how I think about scales in my daily practice! I’d like to share with you two different approaches to practicing scales that were gifted to me by my teachers and mentors, with the hope that they might give you something new or interesting to try out in your own fundamental routines.
The first core tenet of my love of scales was formed by my undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa with Christopher Millard, the Principal Bassoon of the NAC Orchestra. Prof. Millard’s pedagogical approach with scales involved putting his students in an intellectual ‘scales bootcamp’ that involved a lot of sweat and tears. The primary exercises given were scales in a modal pattern, playing each scalar mode of your chosen key, both ascending and descending. Here is an example of this pattern written out for C Major:
Any time spent diligently working on our technique in a thoughtful manner will yield positive outcomes in our playing, regardless of the particular exercise practiced. If you haven’t bought it already, I highly recommend Nadina Mackie’s book Solitary Refinement to get a sense of how vast (and fun!) the world of scales practice can be.
While playing scales fluently and quickly is an important goal of regimented scale practice, Prof. Millard emphasized that scales were primarily a vehicle for developing an evenness and consistency in sonority. He also insisted that we be able to play any scale from any note; this approach helps to develop intellectual quickness and a capacity to assimilate musical patterns with more immediacy. The traditional approach of stopping scales on the tonic can be a helpful anchor point, but approaching scales from any degree opens your ears and your brain to far greater facility in assimilating new pieces. Bringing this idea into practice, students of Prof. Millard were always asked at the beginning of a lesson to play a scale, but in a manner that might make our brains work a bit harder than usual. An example of this would be a request for a “B melodic minor scale in three octaves, but starting on the lowest third scale degree.” This flexibility in thinking was brought to all my solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts. It was a way to grasp how scales – both complete and fragmented – were foundational to organizing and refining my practice routines.
As an example, one memorable moment in my first year of study was when I was completely unable to identify the scale in measure 9 after rehearsal 2 in the famous Bolero solo. We sat in silence for about fifteen minutes while gears turned in my untrained head to figure out the scale I was playing at that moment (hint: it’s part of a harmonic minor scale). When the lightbulb finally went on, I really recognized how much work I had to do to bridge the gap between my brute technical practice and the reality of how these technical patterns actually appear in music.
This kind of approach to scales went into overdrive when we had studio classes, the affectionately named “torture sessions”. An example of the kind of test we’d go through might be the following prompt: “Start on A at the top of the staff. Go up a minor third. Down a tritone. Down a major sixth. Up a minor seventh. Down a major second. Up a perfect 4th. Up a minor third. This note is the fourth scale degree of a harmonic minor scale. Play that harmonic minor scale over three octaves, but starting from the lowest raised 7th scale degree.” Oy vey…At any rate, I eventually started to respond to these challenges by my third year of study!
These days, whenever I see an A flat harmonic minor scale starting on a G natural (yes, that was the solution to this particular challenge…) I think of Prof. Millard.
Running parallel to this journey of enlightenment through torture sessions was my growing awareness of the teachings of Norman Herzberg, the legendary pedagogue in California during the second half of the twentieth century. The relevant part of his teaching curriculum were his particular exercises for scales practice, aptly now known as “Herzberg scales”. I knew about them, I suppose, because I heard a lot of people with fantastic technique say that they practice them. To figure out what these scales were all about, I took the train from Ottawa to Toronto to take a lesson with Michael Sweeney, the Principal Bassoon of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a former graduate student of Norman Herzberg’s at the University of Southern California.
Prof. Sweeney began the lesson by explaining to me that the point of the Herzberg scale routine is accuracy, and not speed. The parameters for measuring accuracy in this exercise are intonation throughout the duration of each note, the evenness of sonority between each note, the quality and seamlessness of legato under slurs, and the evenness of dynamic throughout the scale. It is only once we have each of these parameters under control at a slow tempo that we increase the tempo of the scale. He then presented the ranges of notes for each articulation of the Herzberg scales, since just knowing how high to go for each articulation can be a bit confusing at first. While the idea is to play the given articulation pattern through the entire range of the bassoon, in can be quite beneficial to think of the scale as a loop from top to bottom and one can make the loop small to really zone in on a challenging part of the scale (I’m looking at you, top octave…).
Prof. Sweeney emphasized that Herzberg’s fundamental exercises in scales and articulation patterns were a means to open up our ears to the kind of playing we ultimately want to achieve. Every time we play these scales, we are given the responsibility to listen very closely to our playing, always trying to bring a bit more control. I had never really taken the time to pay such close attention to the quality of the release of short notes or the exactness of intonation from the beginning to the end of every note, no matter how short it might be. This kind attention to what I was doing on the bassoon only came to be a part of my psyche once I was introduced to these fundamental exercises. I was lucky to have had very patient teachers considering how long it took me to figure that out.
Another student of Norman Herzberg, and an important figure for the propulsion of Mr. Herzberg’s teachings into the 21st century, is Benjamin Kamins, Professor of Bassoon at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and former Principal Bassoon of the Houston Symphony.
I was very fortunate to work with Mr. Kamins in the summer of 2019 at the Music Academy of the West and eventually attend Rice University for my graduate studies. As the Herzberg scale was a core tenet of Mr. Kamins’ pedagogy, every lesson began with him asking me “Did you play a scale today?”. After the inevitable affirmative answer, I was expected to play the first articulation of my chosen Herzberg scale of the day. This invariably led to some kind of conversation about how to make it just a little bit better (more on this below!).
This weekly ritual as a student of Mr. Kamins was complemented by a weekly “Fundamentals Class” on Mondays at noon. Each student went to the front of the class to play their scale of the day in front of everyone in the studio. Just as in lessons, there was always an opportunity to improve upon something in the scale. Mr. Kamins knew there was no better way to get someone to practice their scales than to make them play a scale in front of their peers! I am forever grateful that both of my major teachers shared this philosophy.
The overarching idea reinforced by the Herzberg scales is that we must strive for complete uniformity and control over the entire range of the bassoon. This means that from the bottom to the top of the range of the bassoon we must play with the same articulation length, dynamic level, and pitch level along with complete uniformity of sound. Of course, the goal is to play music and express ourselves by not playing uniformly, but we must first have the technique and the control over our instrument to do so. To achieve uniformity in these scale exercises, we have to actively wrestle with and overcome the inherent irregularities of the bassoon, eventually playing in a way where musical considerations as opposed to technical limitations dictate our expression. “Not all notes you play in your life will have the same length, but you must first have control over them, so within the context of these scales they must all be of the same length,” Mr. Kamins once wisely told me.
Taking just the first articulation of the Herzberg scales, the goal is to play from the lowest note on the instrument in the given key to the highest note and then back down with fluid and even technique, the same note length, the same dynamic, the same evenness of sound, without any cracks in the attacks, and with each note centered in pitch. That’s a lot to think about!!! I’ve been told, it takes way more than a lifetime to master… Having one exercise to tackle all of these elements in your playing is really helpful to consolidate your thoughts and to make real strides in your playing.
There are a myriad of reasons why the bassoon has certain acoustic tendencies that we have to fight against (you can read all about the “why” behind these in Christopher Millard’s posts on the physics of the bassoon and reeds), the severity of these shortcomings being dependent on the different components of your setup. Here are a few examples of shortcomings on my setup that would occur if I just play the bassoon how it wants to be played:
-The low register is sharp
-The tenor register is flat
-It is easier to articulate short notes in the lower register than it is in the upper register
-The low register is difficult to articulate in soft dynamics
-When you go higher in the range of the bassoon, the volume tends to get softer
-Cracking/transients can occur on almost every note, though this is most prominent in the register from A3 (just below middle C) to D4.
The process of working on the Herzberg scales in a different key daily allows one to explore each of these shortcomings somewhat in a vacuum, while endeavoring to make subtle changes. “Perhaps I need to simply blow just a bit more in the tenor register to keep it at the same dynamic as the rest of the scale?” Or perhaps “I need to use a bit less tongue in the low register to match the articulation in the upper register.”
Mr. Kamins kindly suggested (insisted!) that I pay closer attention to my tendency for the pitch of a given note to change over the course of its sounding, no matter how short it is. It’s a problem not unique to me! The note might start slightly flat and then “scoop” up to the correct pitch, usually without my noticing. This is most prevalent in the tenor register, where the notes tend to be flatter to begin with. Paying close attention to how much my embouchure and tonguing might move on each note helps me focus the pitch. (hint: you don’t have to move the embouchure or the tongue very much to play a short note). I distinctly remember a studio Zoom class in August 2020, where Mr. Kamins demonstrated a slow articulated scale: I sat in awe because not one of those notes changed pitch from its beginning to its end. This might seem like such source of inspiration, but I certainly couldn’t do this! I was gobsmacked to learn that it became possible only if I practiced my scales in a more observant manner.
When it comes to the ongoing protocols for practicing these Herzberg scales, much depends on your individual temperament. But one essential ideal that is critical to pursue: they are not a warm up! Rather, they are meant to be fundamental exercises that require tremendous focus to reap maximum benefit. It’s best to get your fingers, air, and tongue moving with simpler exercises before you dive into these. That having been said, it’s an occasionally useful challenge to play the first articulation of the Herzberg scale completely cold. This will reveal the parameters of your playing that change as you gradually warm up. We have all experienced playing something scary and exposed in the orchestra after counting rests for twenty minutes… My own regimen has evolved to leave the Herzberg scales as the last thing that I do in the fundamentals part of my daily practice session, after having spent some time working through exercises that address legato, vibrato, tonguing, long tones, intervals, and various simple scale patterns. I do this mostly because it often feels like the Herzberg scales are the culmination of all the fundamental skills needed to play the bassoon well.
A focused and analytical self-dialogue can occur in any scale pattern that we practice. Anything that we practice should come under this microscope. I find that bringing together the holistic knowledge of scales presented to me by Chris Millard and the journey of self-discovery that Ben Kamins introduced by way of the Herzberg scales present a measurable way of staying interested. I encourage you to dive deeply into the scale exercises passed down to you by the wisdom of your teachers and staying curious when it comes to finding more refinement in your playing.
Nicolas Richard is in his first season with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. He is a board member of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists.