Don’t We Have to Learn Scales First?

When I give workshops on improvisation for teachers (whether classical or jazz), one idea is particularly difficult to accept. It directly contradicts what we have been taught.

We were taught that we must “know” a scale before we can create melodies with it. “Knowing” a scale (since the middle of the 19th century) means being able to run up and down the keyboard with it. It is assumed that, once we can do this, THEN we will be able to do something creative. Is this true?

No. When we learn a scale by running up and down a keyboard, we come to “know” it in just that one (often mechanical) way. In my experience, being able to run a scale doesn’t make someone better at listening, responding, and creating. It can even do the opposite by desensitizing a person to the melodic possibilities within a scale.

My approach to introducing scales in the various keys is akin to the way children and animals naturally learn: through creative play. We can learn a scale by creating music with it first. We then come to “know” a scale in an intuitive and responsive way rather than a mechanical and rigid way. But how?

Teachers can play duets with their students, and invite the students to create sounds and melodies with four or five tones first, then later all the tones in a scale. Students explore the sounds and patterns of the scale first, then learn the standard “run” fingering sometime later. In this way, a scale develops a unique flavor and character.

I learned all the modes in all the keys in a similar way, and I now have the most wonderful and personal relationship with each of those modes. A-flat lydian is, to me, a field of bright daffodils, while E-flat dorian is moonlight illuminating an ocean at midnight.

This is what motivated me to create the Create First! series. I wanted to offer a way to introduce all scales, intervals, and chords by letting students create personal music with them from the start. Then, when someone chooses to do so, they can learn to run up and down the keyboard without destroying the personal connection they have with those basic musical materials. Create first!

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