Piano Examinations: Scales

(See also Lesson Format 2: Scales).

I am starting with this section – rather than with pieces – as I always advise my pupils: ‘scales first’. I also apply this to my teaching methods: I start teaching grade 1 scales before the grade 1 pieces. Even for those who have chosen to ‘abandon’ exams, I continue teaching scales and encourage most to gradually ‘move up a grade’.

This ‘scales first’ philosophy is the advice I give both for practising and for playing in the lesson. Scales are a perfect way to ‘warm up’ both the fingers and the brain. Also, as so many consider them ‘boring’, it’s best to get them over and done with at the beginning.

In an ABRSM exam, the candidate has the option of starting with scales or pieces and, although I prefer my pupil to make this decision for himself, I always recommend starting with scales. In particular, for those who go into the exam feeling nervous – in some cases physically shaking – it’s better to ‘mess up’ the scales rather than the pieces and hopefully by the time they start playing the first piece the fingers will have begun to relax a bit.

When my pupil has bought his exam pieces book for the relative grade, I underline the scales he has completed on the inside cover of the book (for some reason the early grades have the scales listed in the inside front cover, while they are on the inside back cover at later grades). This – combined with the notes made in his notebook – means the learner should be in no doubt whatsoever which scales he should be practising.

I don’t ask my students to purchase a scales book as I feel this is an unnecessary expense and it’s better to learn scales by heart from the start. However, some prefer to have the book to refer to and you can find scales books at Musicroom.com, Amazon UK/Amazon US or eBay.co.uk/eBay.com. You may not want to purchase a book for every grade but it’s certainly worth considering buying one for grade 8 as there are so many to remember here. Try to buy the most recent edition, as the exam board does make slight changes in requirements from time to time.

At grade 1, my pupil has often completed all the scales before he buys the exam pieces book, so there’s no need to underline them but I point out the list of scales there to make sure he doesn’t forget to practise any of them.

An Even Beat

As I mentioned in the article Piano Lesson Format 2: Scales, teaching GRADE 1 scales is relatively easy – as long as the pupil understands the concept of counting finger numbers and of playing ‘evenly’ (rather than bunching up a group of three notes, pausing while the thumb goes under, then playing a group of four etc). Sometimes, when a pupil starts learning scales, I will play with him – an octave higher – to help him maintain an even beat.

The other aspect, of course, is remembering the sharps and flats in each scale. This is understandably confusing – particularly to a young child. One important consideration is that sharps in a major scale should always be learned in the correct order. For example, if I ask a pupil: “What sharps do you play in D major?” I would not accept the answer: “C♯ and F♯” – it should always be “F♯ and C♯”. (The ‘order’ of sharps is F,C,G,D,A,E).

Any mnemonic can be used to help with learning these, as long as it can be quickly recalled. (e.g. ‘Four Clever Girls Dance Abroad Exotically’ etc.) The order of flats is much easier to recall as the first four spell the word ‘BEAD’ … and not many of my pupils have had to go beyond this with major scales.

At GRADE 1, I feel it is too early to give children a full explanation of how major and minor scale patterns work (adults, on the other hand, may find it helpful) – yet I know I should somehow justify the need for a flat and a sharp in the same scale (D minor). I usually just give the – totally inadequate (!) explanation: “Minor scales work differently.” Having outlined the ‘rules’ for major scales (e.g. the first sharp is always F♯, the first flat is always B♭, never mix sharps and flats etc.) – I then say: “but forget these rules for minor scales!”

From the point of view of explaining music theory, it would perhaps be easier if those responsible for the exam syllabus would limit the GRADE 1 scales to major ones. Having said that, the children generally love playing A minor and D minor as they sound ‘weird’, ‘sad’ or ‘Egyptian’ and for this reason, they often remember them more easily.

Harmonic or Melodic

There is a choice between harmonic and melodic minors and I always opt for harmonic as they are the same going up as down (although of course from grade 6 onwards, melodics need to be learned as well).

Some children try to avoid words like ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’, as they tend to confuse the two, and, when I ask: “what’s in F major?” they will bang repeatedly on the appropriate black key rather than giving the verbal answer “B♭” which is what I hope for. I find this particularly irritating and let them know that when I ask a question I want a verbal answer, not a sound – not least because at some point they will need some understanding of how keys work – and that some have flats while others have sharps – rather than just following a pattern of black and white.

However, if I feel I’m not making any progress with questions such as: “what’s in F major?” (I imagine some find this too much like a school test), I sometimes let my pupil start playing the scale and try to hear when it sounds ‘wrong’ so he can work out for himself that a B♭is required. The ones who practise scales daily are generally so confident that I rarely bother questioning them about sharps or flats and it may well be that they’re just recalling a pattern but ‘getting away with it’.

By far the easiest GRADE 1 scale is C major contrary motion. Most children love this and many fail to understand why it is only one octave long as they are easily capable of playing two (which they will have to at GRADE 2).

The Tonic Triad

Broken chords (as I also outlined in the earlier article) are a little trickier, but at least there are no black notes to remember for these. However, I’m always surprised that some GRADE 1 pupils struggle to play different combinations of only three notes. Despite being told it’s a CEG chord – some will include Ds or Fs: even though they appear to understand the concept of a tonic triad. Clearly, not everyone finds it easy to immediately recognise a note on a keyboard (which is generally done by relating it to the pattern of surrounding black and white keys).

I tend to teach all the right hand broken chords first as there is a different finger order in the left hand.

GRADE 2 broken chords are slightly more complex and with these I insist that the pupil says the finger numbers out loud as he plays. For some reason, saying the finger numbers in the head is far less successful.

Again, as I mentioned in ‘Piano Lesson Format 2 – Scales’, teaching scales hands together (GRADE 2 onwards) is much more difficult and depends largely on the pupil remembering where to use the fourth finger: this is generally how I teach scales to start with. However, the method I use myself is to (silently) count the fingers of the left hand and just ‘trust’ my right hand, which is generally fairly reliable (this method is less successful for relative beginners).

I insist that my pupils use consistent fingering at all times. Some say to me: “Well it worked OK” if they end on the right finger but I explain that this is not really the point. If the same fingering is not always followed, the memory becomes confused. Whichever fingers are used on certain notes on the way up, the same should always be used on the way down.

Any Workable Fingering

The only exception to this is in the exam itself, where, if, for example, a pupil suddenly realises he’s put a third finger instead of a fourth over in the right hand, he may be able to put a fourth over next to ‘make up for it’: as long as the scale sounds smooth the examiner won’t know the difference and, in any case, it’s not considered ‘wrong’ as any workable fingering is permitted.

It’s actually when going down a scale that the vast majority of fingering mistakes occur. It’s difficult to know why this is but I think a lot of people find the piano keyboard looks very different when reading it ‘backwards’. In fact, my younger son (who is at an advanced level of piano playing but still makes plenty of mistakes) tells me: “I’m sure when I go down the scale I have piano dyslexia.”

One mistake which is common to both the majority of scales and to the majority of pupils is not using the left hand 4th finger where it should be used and using it where it should not. This is particularly frustrating when I have made a point of telling the learner to focus on his left hand 4th (always keeping in mind which note it should play) more than anything else.

Although scales have to be learned hands together from GRADE 2 onwards, the learner must be made aware that they still have to be known separately. (The same applies to arpeggios at later grades).

This would seem to be a far easier task – if you can play something with two hands, surely it’s much easier to play it with one. However, many learners actually find this very difficult – especially if they’re asked to play the left hand on its own – so it’s essential that one-handed scales are practised in the run-up to the exam: many examiners choose a surprisingly high number of these.

For ones with ‘odd’ starting fingering (such as E♭ major), I generally suggest that the pupil places both hands in to position to begin with, to remind him how the scale starts, then takes the redundant one away as he plays.

Chromatic scales – which are introduced as one-octave, single-handed scales at GRADE 2 – are acquired relatively easily. Here, the pupil just needs to realise that the only finger ever used on a black note is the 3. The only other rule is – use thumb on white notes except where there are two together in which case use 2 as well but the 1 and 2 must never cross.

Turnaround Point

From GRADE 3 and above when chromatics are played hands together I recommend watching the left hand on the way up (to avoid crossing 1 and 2 where this is more likely to happen) and the right on the way down, for the same reason. It’s at the ‘turnaround’ point where errors are most likely to occur.

At GRADE 3, the scale which seems to cause most difficulties is B♭ major. Firstly, the starting fingers can be an issue. Some pupils prefer to learn this as ‘thirty-two” (i.e. third finger in the left and second in the right). I remind them that this also applies to E♭ major, which is another GRADE 3 scale.

                 PROBLEM SCALES
These are the ones I consider to be the most hated, feared or incorrectly-played for each ABRSM grade:
Grade 1:
F major ‘odd’ right hand fingering
D major and D minor confused
Broken chords timing (count 3 beats)
Grade 2:
F major hands together asymetrical fingering
E (harmonic) minor play D♯ not C♯
Major and minor arpeggios  confused
Broken chord fingering errors cause wrong notes
Grade 3:
B♭ major opposite fingers on B♭/E♭ in RH and LH
B minor LH starts on 4. (‘the gappy one’)
C (harmonic) minor pupils tend to play a B♭ in it
A major arpeggio play E not F♯ going down
B♭ major arpeggio LH pupils forget ‘odd’ fingering
Grade 4:
A♭ major RH fingering problems going down
F minor (the ‘bad’ one)
C♯/G♯ minor RH third finger over first on way down
F major contrary motion asymmetrical fingering
D minor contrary motion
Grade 5:
F♯ major – which white notes to play?
B♭ minor
E♭ minor 3rd finger on D in LH
F♯ minor
Contrary motions (either group 1 or group 2)
Grade 6:
Melodic minors (especially B♭, E♭, F♯)
Contrary motions (especially E♭ and B♭)
Chromatic contrary motion a minor 3rd apart
Grade 7:
3rd apart staccatos (especially minors on black note)
All contrary motions (especially minors on black note)
Dominant 7ths
Grade 8:
6th apart staccatos (especially minors on black note)
Legato scale of B♭ major in 3rds
Chromatic scale in minor 3rds
Dominant 7ths

The other problem with B♭ major is that different fingers are used on the flat notes in each hand (left hand fourth goes on E♭and right hand third, while left hand third goes on B♭, while it’s a fourth in the right hand). I explain this slowly and carefully but it generally takes a long time to sink in.

As well as encouraging pupils to think of B♭ and E♭ majors as a pair, I also suggest linking B major and B minor (another two which are introduced at GRADE 3) as, in both cases the left hand starts with the fourth finger: I explain the reason for this, which is in order to avoid using the thumb on a black note. In both scales the left hand 4th also comes over first.

I give a special name to B minor – ‘The Gappy One’. This is because you play the first black note, don’t play the second (a ‘gap’), play the third, don’t play the fourth and play the fifth. It’s amazing how many pupils look at me blank when I say: “Play B minor” – yet respond with an immediate: “Oh yes!” when I add: “… the Gappy One.”

Similarly, a GRADE 4 pupil of mine refers to F minor as ‘the bad scale’ because it contains the flattened forms of the notes ‘B A D’. Giving a scale a special name – or even a ‘character’ – often works wonders.

There are a few things I’ve found myself saying several times when teaching scales. One of these is: “Don’t waste your fourth finger”. What I mean by this is that when there are two black notes ahead of you, (e.g. in D♭ major) you only need your third (not fourth) on the second D♭ going up in the left hand (or on E♭ going down in the right) as you need to ‘save’ your fourth finger for when there are three black notes ahead.

(continued on next page …)