I have some good news for those of you practising your scales! I have just published the first part of my new scale manual aimed at intermediate players on the Online Academy.There are several scale manuals already available, but this manual is different in that it offers exercises and suggestions for practice, together with short, easy-to-use video demonstrations. It is my aim that these will be of practical help in the learning and practising process. Teachers will be able to assign specific exercises, and students will have a clearer focus in their day-to-day practice.

Using the ABRSM Grade V syllabus as a guideline for this level I will be publishing the manual in stages, beginning with a practice worksheets for the group of scales built on C major fingering, and one example from some of the main groups for arpeggios. I will gradually add to these until the manual is complete.

Why Scales?

Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the 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 apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day. In fact, many of the world’s greatest pianists wouldn’t think of beginning their daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios (possibly along with other exercises and studies), and they expect their students to do the same. There are others who feel, once they have been learned, there is no real value in continuing to practise scales. Another example of the differences of opinion that divide the piano world!

Technique

There is so much to say about scale technique, and I cover it in detail in the manual. To give you a taste of what’s there, let me share with you a simple but very useful exercise I like to use for mobility in the thumb – an important ingredient of scale and arpeggio playing. It’s simply a separate-hands scale fingered with thumb and 2nd finger, ascending and descending over two octaves. When you get back to the key note, don’t stop but continue up and back with thumb and 3rd finger – and then thumb and 4th (larger hands can even try thumb and 5th). Keep the wrist loose, and make sure the arm moves smoothly with no jerks.

Begin with C major, but try it also with other scales. It’s great practice to negotiate the black-white terrain with this fingering. For those who like to practise Hanon, did you know you can adapt some of the exercises with this fingering?

In scale and arpeggio playing, it is really important that the wrist stays loose and springy as we pass the thumb under. In the downloadable practice worksheet for the C scale family I give an exercise to encourage free movement at the wrist joint. Here’s what it looks like.

A common error in arpeggio playing seems to be starting in an unhelpful position, the elbows close to the body. Instead, open the arms slightly and lift the elbows up a bit. This simple alignment exercise will help you find the right starting position.

Scale Practice

It can be difficult to summon up the necessary enthusiasm to practise scales unless they are presented in ways that are fun, rewarding and challenging. I also think there needs to be additional resources available to encourage the student to practise scales in a disciplined and orderly fashion, and a system of logging the work from day to day. Self-testing is also an important area of practice, as is variety.

Practising scales (and passagework) in different rhythms is standard and traditional – certainly nothing new. Rhythm practice helps us move beyond thinking of each note as a separate entity and allows us to regroup the scale with each different rhythm we play. 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. In order for this type of practice to be effective, it has to be done properly. Otherwise not only can it be a waste of time, it can actually build in tension and be counterproductive.

In the manual I offer some of the more standard rhythmic patterns, and also some that are a bit different. Here’s a screenshot of a few of them – there are lots more, including some syncopated ones to keep it interesting.

If these samples have tickled your interest and you’d like to add a new  dimension to your scale and arpeggio practice then please click here to view the full set of articles on the Online Academy!

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