The very mention of the word scales to a piano student is likely to conjure up associations with something they know is necessary but somehow unpalatable, like eating spinach or a visit to the dentist. I think it is actually possible to make scale practice fun, rewarding and challenging – provided it is presented in clear, step-by-step stages that students can easily follow by themselves in their daily practice between lessons.
Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the so-called technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not, they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky wouldn’t think of beginning his daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios in all keys. Once learned, scales can be used as the starting point for all sorts of problem-solving exercises – if you are struggling to feel a polyrhythm in your piece, practise a scale up and down in that polyrhythm. If you want to refine a particular touch or for independence between the hands, use scales.
In addition to walk-throughs and worksheets for the ABRSM exam pieces I decided to include some resources for scales in the Online Academy, since it is easy for teachers to neglect them in lessons (leaving the student with little incentive to practise them at home). The scale series kicks off with the complete scales and broken chords for ABRSM Grade 1 – the articles feature text, musical examples as well as close-up video demonstrations, and there is a downloadable worksheet for each scale and chord (click here to view an index of the articles and resources). This enables the teacher to assign particular scales for practice that week, highlighting which exercises on the worksheet they want their student to practise. I have tried to make these worksheets as user-friendly as possible by writing out all fingering and circling thumb notes for greater clarity, and (in the case of different rhythms) writing out each rhythm in full for the entire scale. These rhythms are numbered for ease of assignment. I suggest practising the exercises not only in the early stages of learning each new scale and broken chord, but returning to them regularly for enhanced control and finesse.
I have broken down the scale exercises into the following areas:
- Blocking – There are two ways to do this – one involving an arm shift; the other with the thumb-under motion
- The thumb and the wrist – I offer two exercises to develop freedom and flexibility in the thumb from the wrist to avoid the pervading habit of the elbow dumping the thumb in its keys at the last moment.
- Chaining – When we practise slowly we are deliberately thinking about one note at a time, one finger action at a time, and while this is indispensable in the early stages of learning a scale, eventually we will need to group notes in 4s – thinking less about each finger and more about the sweep of the arm.
- Rhythms – Practising scales (and passagework) in different rhythms is standard and traditional and when it is done well it can be very beneficial. Rhythm practice helps us move beyond feeling each note as a separate entity, allowing us to regroup the scale with each different rhythm. The brain sees the patterns slightly differently with each rhythmical variation, and when we return to the original it is easier to play faster, evenly and more accurately.
The full series of articles and resources for the ABRSM Grade 1 scales and broken chord syllabus is now available on the Online Academy. Please click here to view an index of articles and resources in this series or click here for a general introduction to playing scales and arpeggios.
I am currently working on a scale manual for Grade V, in which every scale and arpeggio will be presented with exercises and practice suggestions suitable for the level. I hope it will take the pain out of scale practice, helping the student and teacher to organise the learning and preparation. After that, I shall embark on a comprehensive, advanced scale manual to include everything necessary for higher grades and beyond. I’ll be including all the double-note scales (major and minor as well as chromatics) with a variety of different fingering options, contrary motion scales, and arpeggios (including dominant and diminished sevenths) and some fun ways to practise all of the above once they are mastered. Watch this space!
Follow these links to earlier blog posts dealing with scale and arpeggio practice:
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The Practising the Piano Online Academy
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