The Flesch Scale System and its consequences have been a disaster for violinists everywhere.
Well, not the system itself, but certainly the way it is most often taught. How often has a student experienced having that giant blue tome unceremoniously chucked in their general direction and instructed to practice its contents – contents that are infamously dense, confusing, and can take hours to slog through?
No wonder most students don’t practice scales!
Now, you may take from this that I don’t like the Flesch Scale book. On the contrary! I have great admiration for Carl Flesch and his writings on violin technique and pedagogy. They are essential reading for all violin pedagogues.
However, the way in which that Scale System is so often used reveals that many teachers do not understand Flesch’s purpose for the book or how to teach scales at all!
Not Actually a Scale Book
The Flesch Scale System is not a stand-alone volume, but actually the 3rd volume in Carl Flesch’s Art of Violin Playing series.
I’d wager most teachers using the Flesch Scale System have not read the previous two volumes where he explains his reasoning behind the variations used in the Scale book.
Flesch analyzed what he thought were the most common patterns a violinist would encounter in the repertoire, and so laid out a system where those patterns would be practiced in every key, on every string, and with every double-stop. The idea was actually to save the violinist time when practicing music.
However, as even the editor of the current edition, Max Rostal, points out, it will likely take up most of a violinist’s practice time if he plays it all at once.
The main takeaway here should be that the scale book is an extension of Carl Flesch’s vast pedagogical expertise and analysis, and should be treated as such. It’s a reference book that gives great insight into proper scale practice and fingering, but if followed as a homework assignment will more likely overwhelm a young student rather than help them in any meaningful way.
A Better Approach
As a teacher who is simultaneously working with students learning 3-octave scales for the first time as well as students adding in double-stops and changing keys every day, I suggest a much more practical, “holistic” approach to teaching scales. This approach takes cues from the Flesch system, but better grasps the purpose of scales in one’s daily practice, allowing for a more bite-sized methodology.
Firstly, the most important thing to understand about scales is that you are never done with them.
You may have just started learning a 2 octave G Major scale today, or maybe you can play Bartok’s 2nd Violin Concerto with ease, but you are never done practicing scales. They are the foundation of your playing regardless of how accomplished you become. They will be a constant companion to the end of your days.
With this in mind, why the rush? If it takes a few years for a student to learn all the scales and arpeggios, while slowly adding in different double-stops, bowing patterns, or scales on single strings, then who am I to force that student to “learn” any faster. You have an entire lifetime to perfect scales, so start slowly.
The “Bite-Sized” Methodology
Step 1: Basic 3-Octave Scale Fingering
When I introduce a student to scales, the most important thing is for them to first learn the basic fingerings for 3-octave scales, and then all 24 keys.
One genius aspect to the Flesch system is that, once a student knows the fingering for B-flat, they then know the fingerings for every 3-octave scale up to F#. This leaves just G, A-Flat, and A whose fingerings have to be learned separately.
At first, a student might spend quite a bit of time on a single key, as they are solidifying the fingering and bowing patterns. But once this pattern is “in the fingers,” as we say, it’s very easy to start changing the key every week.
However long it takes for a student to get to this point is irrelevant. Some students take to the scales immediately, while others need a lot of time and help working out their technique.
If a student has trouble with shifting, the 4th finger, intonation, or strings crossings (to name just a few troubles that can arise in basic scales!), then it is worth spending a few weeks just playing D-Major to sort this out. Again, they have an entire lifetime to learn scales!
Step 2: All Major & Minor Scales
Once someone is able to work out one scale, it becomes much easier to learn the others. At this point I encourage students to learn a new scale every week until they’ve played 3-octave scales and arpeggios in every major and minor key.
Step 3: Double Stops, Single-String Scales, & More
When a student is able to play all 3-octave scales and arpeggios, then it’s time to move on to the next steps: slowly introducing double stops and (if you are inclined to Flesch’s other suggestions) single-string scales.
While a student may be able to switch keys every day when playing 3-octave scales, it’s now time to stay on a single key, for perhaps a few months, while the student slowly makes their way through 3rds, octaves, fingered octaves, 10ths, harmonics, and whatever else a teacher wishes for his students to practice.
The benefit of this approach is that, once a student learns a scale, it doesn’t take much practice time to maintain it. So, by slowly introducing each new variation, you only give the student one thing that they have to spend extra time practicing. Once that thing becomes learned, it can then join the others in being something that must be merely maintained, and you can add the next variation.
If a student goes through this entire process, by the end he’ll be able to adequately practice all 3-octave scales and arpeggios, single string scales, and all double stops in about 30-40 minutes. This can be easily fit into a normal practice schedule, and the process, while at first seems to take a long time, will have them playing much better scales sooner than trying to do it all at once.
It will be stress free and encourage better scale practice and consistency by not overwhelming the student.
Once a student is able to do all of the variations and double stops in one key, then it isn’t too difficult to jump into any other key, even though, unlike a standard 3-octave scale, fingerings for some double stops are different from scale to scale. Having perfected the double-stops in one key will very easily carry over to another, still ensuring the shorter practice time.
To Sum Up
While some might be eager to “take on” the Flesch Scale book, thinking that scarfing down as many exercises and variations will make them improve quickly, they are more likely to suffer a burnout.
It would be better that they took Carl Flesch’s own advice when asked how much he practiced to perfect the octaves in Paganini’s 17th Caprice:
“Oh, I’ve only practiced it for 15 or 20 minutes a day, but I’ve been doing that for the past 5 years!”