Having fun with scales

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Yeah, right! Is it really possible to have fun playing scales? For many students, practicing scales is a chore. In fact,it is a big chore and seems to be boring and confusing while taking too much time away from practicing pieces. "If my piece does not have a scalar passage, why should I play the scale of this piece's key? That is a waste of time!"

In spite of their objections, teachers should insist students play scales and explain the reasons:

1.Mastering lateral motion. Lateral motion promotes legato playing and allows the pianist to play scalar passages, arpeggios, and other numerous running passages at top speed. Lateral motion eliminates unnecessary twisting and allows the thumb and fifth finger to play with minimal dropping of the wrist.

2. Mastering coordination between the hands. For string players, the majority of finger coordination occurs only in the left hand. Pianists, however, must coordinate five fingers on one hand against five in the other. This coordination between the hands might include different motions, rhythms, and dynamic levels. When these problems are mastered in scale playing, encountering them in a piece will be much easier— independence of finger and hand is the key.

3. Sharpening pitch and tonality awareness. When a student is taught pentascales and scales as transpositions of C major or A minor—rather than using a book of scales—the student learns the location of the half steps and whole steps. This develops sensitivity to tonality and enables detection of incorrect notes. Students also learn the relationship among various scale degrees, such as the leading tone's pull to the tonic and the relationship between the dominant and tonic scale degrees. Playing scales in contrary motion helps develop the ear because students must keep track of the sharps or flats when they occur in each hand.

4.Mastering speed. As students progress from a beginning level to more advanced repertoire, they face many obstacles, not the least of which are longer compositions and complicated rhythms. Increased tempos make these challenges even more difficult. Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 24, is much more manageable if the right hand is able to play the right-hand scale passages easily, allowing the mind to concentrate on the left-hand complexity.

5. Keyboard topography familiarization. Because the C-major scale uses all white keys, the fingers are all equidistant from each other. But in other keys the distances among the fingers are different. Noticing these differences helps students remember what I call the "hills" (represented by the black keys) and the "plains" (represented by the white keys). It also helps students understand why the long middle fingers play the black keys, and highlights the importance of staying close to the black keys rather than sliding up to reach them.

6.Mastering beat divisions. Scales facilitate maintaining a steady pulse and mastering macro- and micro-divisions of the beat when taught as explained later in this article. 

To combat students' resistance to playing scales, teachers should find ways to get them excited enough to practice the scales every day. First of all, do not wait until the students are several years into their study before teaching scales; start with simpler ones. Beginners can begin by using the middle fingers of the left hand to play "C-island" notes (CDE), and the middle fingers of the right hand to play the group of three black keys—resulting in a whole-tone scale. This scale is the basis of many compositions that can be taught by rote even to first-year students as young as five years old. Teachers can also encourage students to create their own compositions using block chords, scalar patterns, and hand-over-hand crossings.

From there they can proceed to major and minor pentascales. Play these hands separately at first, followed by hands together—legato or staccato. To promote independence of hands at this beginning level, teachers can ask students to play hands together legato, immediately change to one hand legato while the other plays staccato, reverse hands, and finally play hands together staccato. Additionally, they can learn to play one hand more softly and then reverse. Challenges like these create the foundation for navigating more advanced music where balance is needed, especially when the melody switches from the right hand to the left hand.

With the foundation provided by pentascales, students can progress to major and minor scales using fingers one through four in each hand in a tetrachord position. The chromatic scale should also be taught early to promote correct positioning of the thumb using simple songs. Some students think that because the thumb and fifth finger are short they should lie flat. This results in an up and down motion, resulting in twisting of the hand and an inability to keep the hands still and parallel to the keys. 


Finally, the crowning achievement is to be able to play all twenty-four major and minor scales continuously, a monumental task for any student.

When playing all twenty-four scales continuously, creating a bridge between scales allows advancing students to incorporate practical theory into their scale playing. Starting with C major, the student plays one octave ascending and descending. The student then uses a bridge to connect the tonic of the first scale to the tonic of the next scale. The left hand can help by playing the dominant of the new key followed by the tonic. The bridge can be any ornamentation: a trill, an appoggiatura, any interesting improvisation, or a chord progression. The order of scales might be the following: C major goes into A minor, which is second of G major, then to E minor, etc. Progressing by fifths or fourths, going up or down, are also options.

Creating a bridge helps students learn how composers actually move from one key to another. Frederick Wick's Etude #7 (Mel Bay's "Complete Book of Exercises for the Pianist," Gail Smith editor), teaches students to change a major triad to a dominant-seventh chord, followed by a resolution in the new key. The student must hear how the diminished fifth contained in the dominant-seventh chord resolves into the first and the third of the next tonic triad. By continuing the chord progression, students can play all the keys starting from the lowest C to the highest C on the piano. Again, this can be taught aurally, emphasizing which notes resolve to the tonic chord of the new key.  

Once students can play scales fluently in parallel and contrary motion, they can learn to play the scales the Russian way:

• Ascending parallel motion (one to three octaves)

• Contrary motion outward, then inward back to middle position

• Ascending parallel motion

• Descending parallel motion back to middle position

• Contrary motion outward and then back inward to middle position

• Descending parallel motion to the starting position

The student will learn to think ahead, making sure to use the correct fingering.

Traditionally, students play scales with the hands one octave apart. This can be the foundation for further scale study. Advanced repertoire often includes scalar passages with the distance of a sixth or third between the hands; scale study using these intervals can prepare students for this stage in their learning. Additional scale study can include all intervals: seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths. This can solidify the physical distance and the aural awareness of these intervals. Students may react to the "strange sounds," but this activity can increase awareness of fingering patterns. Playing scales in seconds prepares students for Alexander Tcherepnin's Bagatelle, Op. 5, No. 1, which uses this distance between the two hands. Students with larger hands can play scales in octaves as suggested in Hanon exercises.

Playing scales with one note per beat for one octave, two notes per beat for two octaves, three notes per beat for three octaves, and four notes per beat for four octaves can enhance a student's ability to subdivide the beat. One of the challenges with this practice technique is to move from one subdivision to the next with no hesitations. Though this routine may seem simple, initial fingering confusion can be present. Once this sequence is mastered, consider calling out various subdivisions for the student to switch to immediately. This rhythmic playing promotes evenness found in passage work.

An additional routine is to play a one-octave scale in the left hand, while the right hand plays eighths, triplets, or sixteenths. Start with the hands one octave apart, and don't be surprised if there is initial confusion. Follow this by reversing the two hands.In this format, the right hand must start four octaves higher than the left so that when the left hand plays sixteenth notes the hands will end one octave apart.

Finally, students can learn to play eighth notes in the left hand, while the right hand plays triplets. For this format start one octave apart. When switching—triplets in the left hand, eighths in the right hand—start two octaves apart. This is not easy for many students, but is valuable preparation for repertoire with two-against-three rhythms such as Debussy's Arabesque No. 1. A more difficult task would be to play three notes in one hand against four notes in the other hand, preparing them to play Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. Beyond these practice techniques, students can learn scalar studies such as those by Czerny and Brahms.

The benefits of scale study are many. It trains the ears and the hands in different ways, and makes learning repertoire and sight reading more effective and efficient. Playing scales does not have to be boring. Assign various routines each week and hear these scales before students play their repertoire at their lessons. In addition to providing a foundation for advanced technique, this important aspect of piano study can be challenging and fulfilling, but definitely not boring. 

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