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How do you introduce scales?

Richard Chronister, the founder of  Keyboard Companion, made an astute remark to me one time at lunch. "It may be a scale," he mused over a Cobb salad, "but is it technic?" We had been talking about the requirements of one of our state assessment programs, which, like many others, require the student to perform scales in the same keys as the repertoire pieces. I didn't at first understand what he was talking about. "Playing a simple scale demonstrates that the student knows the notes," he explained. "But does it really prove that she understands the concept of a scale? Or the proper choreography and finger motion? If not, what's the point?"

It didn't take long to realize that he was right. If students don't understand scales cognitively and kinesthetically, there is no point. They won't identify scale patterning in their pieces, and they won't recognize the musical cues that trigger correct passagework technic. So teaching scales involves much more than a quick run-through one week before an assessment. Students have to understand the concept of a scale, and understand scale choreography. In my view, this process needs to start well in advance of actual scale teaching.

The most important activity my beginning piano students perform in their first piano lesson is singing, and then playing, pentatonic folk songs. This is because I want them to experience piano playing primarily as an aural and kinesthetic art, rather than as reading-based. I introduce steps (two next door notes), skips (two notes separated by one note in the middle) and leaps (anything bigger than a skip) in this context—as something one hears and feels, rather than lines on a printed page.

It's not long before I progress to half steps and whole steps. A half step is two keys as close as possible together; a whole step is two keys, separated by one key in the middle. Confusing? It could be, since the definition of a whole step is dangerously close to that of a skip. Here's where a listening-based approach really pays off. The definition may be similar, but the sound is not close at all. Students hear and understand this readily, after some repetition. We are laying the groundwork for a conceptual understanding of scales, no matter how complicated. They are built on patterns of half steps (semitones) and whole steps (tones).

Our first step to actual scale-playing begins with The D Song (see Example 1). Although beginning work on middle "C," as many method books do, does have some logic, I prefer to begin my students' patterning on the note "D." If you study the topography of your keyboard you will see why. When placing both thumbs on middle "D," and moving in contrary motion, the intervals are symmetrical, whole step—half step—whole step—whole step. The intervals sound the same and, equally important, they feel the same. I call this "mirroring."

I feel strongly about the importance of starting technical work in contrary motion; in my opinion, it is an easier and more natural way to move one's fingers. Try drumming the fingers of both hands on a table, and see if you agree with me. Most students will drum their fingers in contrary motion, medially, that is, starting with the fifth finger and moving in toward the center of the body. I use lateral (from the thumb out) contrary motion in  The D Song , for a reason: to focus on the thumb.

The thumb is the "problem child" of technic because it is so different from the other digits. It has only two phalanges (finger bones) instead of three; it works in opposition to the fingers, and, indeed, has a different position from them as well. The thumb metacarpus (which attaches the fingers to the hand) is capable of a wider range of movement, compared to the other fingers; the tip of the thumb also has a more extensive motion range than the other fingertips. What all of this means for beginning piano students is: trouble.

At the beginning stage, the most important task is to establish the proper position and movement pattern for the thumb. I start with a simple away-from- the-piano drill I call, with a startling lack of creativity in titling, The Thumb Drill.

  • Rest your forearm on a flat surface.
    • The arm should be relaxed, really "resting." I sometimes tell children that their arm should feel like it is asleep. 
  • Fold the four fingers (not the thumbs) under the hand, making a loose, relaxed fist.
  • Move the thumb gently up and down five times per hand, with the tip turned in slightly. At the bottom of the stroke, it should gently tap on the flat surface, not pressing or holding.
Why fold the fingers under the hand? This position makes it virtually impossible (though some students try) to move the thumb incorrectly. The thumb moves easily from the metacarpal joint, rather than the knuckle, and acts independently.

There is another fundamental movement that I introduce with The D Song: rotation. Rotation, for me, is one of the foundational movements of piano technic, one that pertains to every level of playing—especially to scale-type passages. So I take care to introduce it carefully right from the beginning. I ask students to let their arms hang, with their hands at their sides, as if walking. Notice that, in this position, both the thumbnail and radius bone are facing forward. In order to play the piano, we have to rotate the forearm so that the thumbnail and radius are facing medially, to the center of the body. This is not an uncomfortable position, but the arm naturally wants to rotate back to its initial position, with  the thumb and radius facing forward. We want to take advantage of this natural inclination and use it in piano technic.

The easiest way to explain rotation to a beginner is to use the analogy of opening a door. I make it even easier for my beginners: I've hung a cat toy (doughnut shaped, with dangly legs; the doorknob fits through the middle, where the cat's stomach would be) on my doorknob. The cat's head is upright when the student's hand is in piano playing position. It circles to the right for lateral rotation, and circles slightly to the left for medial rotation.

The most important part of rotation is, in my view, the preparation, which must always be in the opposite direction to the rotational motion that will be playing the note. The thumb is played, almost always, by a medial rotation. So it should be prepared laterally. Here are the steps:

  • Set-up your hand in level playing position, resting lightly on or slightly above the keys.
  • Preparation
    • Rotate (open the door) laterally, to the right, so that the thumb is on top of the hand, with the nail pointing up.
    • Flex your fingers so that they are strong—not stiff, but not totally relaxed, either.
      • I show students the correct flexion by asking them to hold a Beanie Baby, before we start the rotation process. The fingers should be firm enough that the Beanie Baby doesn't drop, but not so strong that the Beanie Baby is clenched.
  • Play
    • Release the energy of the arm and let the forearm fall and the thumb push into the key, in good thumb position. If you do it right, you will get a full, resonant, bell-like sound.
  • Follow-through 
    • The arm continues the rotary movement medially, to the left. This is not a separate motion, it's a continuation of the forearm motion that caused the thumb to play. The thumb rolls a bit to its side, so it is resting briefly on the nail.
      • An important component of  this process is that the thumb has to relax once it has struck the key, so the rotational movement can continue, while the thumb lightly holds the "D" key down. It should not be pressing as it rests on the keybed.
Is this too much information for a beginning piano student? Way too much, if you try to present it all at one time in words. I don't do that. I demonstrate, I make up stories, I correct as I go, and I don't expect too much perfection at the beginning.

Psychologists call this type of learning "successive approximation" to a goal. The behavior (playing a simple note-pattern with proper thumb position, finger flexion, and rotation) is gradually refined by working on a series of two-, three- and four-note exercises. It's the teacher's job to demonstrate, describe, and correct—and provide reinforcement, each time "raising the bar" for receiving praise a little higher until the correct scale-playing technique is mastered.

It is only after the student has mastered these shorter exercises that I  progress to what I call "pentascales," "penta" meaning five, "scale" meaning, well, scale. Some early- level books call these pentachords, or five- finger patterns. I teach these in parallel motion (starting on both 1 and 5), contrary motion (in both lateral directions), zig-zag pentascales, and doubled- pair pentascales (see Examples 2 and 3).

In order to understand the rotational patterning for scale work, the teacher has to know the difference between single and double rotation. The D Song was an example of single rotation: playing notes moving in the opposite direction (prepare laterally, play medially; play laterally; play medially...), with one rotational movement preparing for the next note. Double rotation is necessary when notes move in the same direction, all up or all down. Let's say you want to build on the notes of The D Song and add the note F. The steps would be:

  • Lateral preparation
    • Play D with a rotation to the median.
    • Play E by rotating back to lateral.
The problem is how to play F. You can't further rotate laterally since your  hand is already in a lateral position. The solution is to:
  • Relax on the key E, but continue holding it down lightly.
  • While holding the key, rotate medially.
  • Play F with a lateral rotation.
So, if we play the notes C-D-E-F-G, a C major pentascale, we see the following rotation:
  • Ascending (RH)
    • Prepare laterally.
    • Play C with a single medial rotation.
    • D with a double rotation.
    • E with a double rotation.
    • F with a double rotation.
    • G with a double rotation.
  • Descending (RH)
    • F with a single rotation, since you are changing direction.
    • E with a double rotation.
    • D with a double rotation.
    • C with a double rotation.
As the student successively becomes more adept, the motions get faster, at  faster speeds becoming almost invisible. But no matter what speed, rotation is a component of good passage-work playing.

Yes, I know it has taken me 1,700+ words, and I have not yet explained a full-octave scale. It's deliberate. This is part of my philosophy of technic: I do a great amount of work on a limited number of patterns. I believe that this helps students concentrate on concept and choreography, rather than constantly having to learn new note patterns. In the series American Popular Piano, of which I am co-author with Christopher Norton, I spend three levels of technic books working on pentascales and related patterns. We practice at different dynamic levels, with different articulations, and with varying rhythmic patterns. And the levels Preparatory through Level 2 of American Popular Piano do not by any means represent all the variants I do in my home studio. Just for fun, see Excerpt 4 for a variant my students really enjoy.

Drum roll, please! We finally made it to scales. I usually start by teaching hands alone for one octave, in opposite directions, both hands starting with the thumb on middle "C." We combine the hands in contrary motion, one octave, so each hand does the same motions and uses the same fingering. The crucial part, and the most challenging for young students, is the crossover and under. It may surprise you to find out that I am adamantly opposed to any kind of crossing under of the thumb. This motion uses an abductor muscle, which is designed to move the fingers sideways, not for speed. Instead, I recommend rotation. Crossing from "E" to "F' in a C major scale for instance, we play "E" with a double rotation, and then, to play the thumb on "F," we use a single rotation back. I tell my students to try to avoid flexing the thumb abductor at all. Crossing over is also a function of rotation. The student plays the thumb medially, continues the rotation to rest briefly on the thumbnail, and rotates laterally for the next note.

As you might imagine, I have all sorts of drills to take these concepts a step further in scale playing. I'll explore these in my next article, Teaching Two- Octave Scales.

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