If music were a sport, then practicing your scales, arpeggios, and other exercises would be like running drills, doing batting practice, or shooting free throws. You are developing the basic skills you will need when you are facing the competition in a real game. Imagine an athlete who never practices, but instead just plays the game all the time. They won't have the time and attention to fix small problems and errors in his or her game. Similarly, a musician needs to play exercises to have the ability to focus on very specific motions and timing to continually push their technique to higher levels. Students often have more fun running through their pieces than doing exercises, but just like that athlete, there will be technical problems that never get fully addressed without intently focusing on them with exercises.
What everyone needs is a balance of focusing on exercises and having fun with the beautiful, exciting music they are studying. Here are some basic exercises to help you develop the main skills you will need to succeed on the cello.
We usually hear the word "arpeggios" right after "scales and . . . " That's because they go together like peas and carrots. While scales go from one note to the very next all the way up and down, arpeggios train us to do skips between the notes. Just like scales, arpeggios are an important way that composers organize their music, they create harmony, and are used extensively in almost all forms of music.
Arpeggios are just broken chords, so learning your arpeggios well also has a sneaky side-effect; it gives you an education in harmony. So pay attention as you work on your arpeggio fingerings . . . there are important music theory lessons and ear training going on too!
Shifting is one of the great things about cello playing but also one of the most troublesome techniques we encounter. Not much is more exciting than that big shift up to the glorious high note at the end of a big crescendo, but it can be fraught with danger. There is no mark on the fingerboard to tell you where the note is, so how are you supposed to know where it is?!? That's where shifting exercises come in. Practicing your shifts is critical for cellists because so much of the skill comes from building up muscle memory. That is, after you have practiced a certain shift many, many, MANY times, your muscles just kind of "know" where the note is. You can just feel where it is, giving you the confidence to launch your hand to that spot and do your best Pavarotti impersonation.
Anyone who has studied music for a while knows that scales are the fundamental exercise that everyone has to master. Why? Because scales form the basis of how composers organize music in their minds and scales are present in most pieces to some extent or another. If you know your scales really well, you already have a head start on learning just about every piece of music there is because most of them use scales and smaller scale fragments throughout the piece.
Additionally, scales help us play better in tune because our hands become used to the shapes they have to make when playing in different keys. It helps build up the muscle memory for common note combinations and helps develop our ear skills at the same time. Every minute you dedicate to learning your scales will pay you back in hours in the future - that's a great investment of your time!