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That ‘Special Pupil’

Of course this doesn’t apply with C♯ minor and G♯ minor where there is that awkward ‘gap’ between the white notes, caused by the B♯ and F double ♯ respectively. These two scales prove particularly troublesome for GRADE 4 pupils. I make them aware that these are commonly played incorrectly. With one female pupil I made a particular point of making her feel ‘special’ by advising her to be ‘that unique person who doesn’t put a right hand fourth finger over first when coming down the scale.” If ever she played it incorrectly I would say, in a tone of great disappointment: “Oh dear … and I was thinking you were that special pupil …” This eventually had the desired effect.

As I said earlier, some pupils rely totally on the visual patterns of black and white notes to remember their scales. Others prefer some kind of logical explanation as well. For example, in scales where there are nearly all black notes – such as D♭ major – it can be helpful to realise why the only white notes needed are F and C … i.e. because these two are the first in the list of sharps so would be unlikely to be flattened. This then helps pupils to realise that it would make sense to play a white F but not a white E (which those just concentrating on the five blacks might easily do).

Of course, when you reach the higher grades (GRADES 5,6,7,8), it becomes more complicated – with F♯ major, for example, it can be confusing to play an F♮ as well as an F♯ – and it can be difficult for some to understand that, in this case, the F♮ is actually an E♯.

I had one male pupil who would say every letter name as he went up and down the scale – to make sure he didn’t leave any notes out. So, in the case of F♯ major, he would be saying ‘E’ whilst – in fact – playing an F (… and saying ‘F’ whilst playing an F♯ etc.).

Pupils who are more mathematically-minded are happy to have scale patterns explained. In these cases, I will write a table in the back of the note book, indicating to count in intervals of five by saying your letter names ‘forwards’ (initially from C major which has no sharps or flats) to a major scale with one more sharp (i.e. starting with G major which has F♯, then D major which has F♯ and C♯ etc.). The best way to do this is to count on the fingers, making sure you include the first note as one of your five.

Circle of Fifths

Many teachers would also advise counting five letter names ‘backwards’ for a major scale with flats (i.e. starting with F major which is five letter names ‘backwards’ from C and has a B♭ in it). Of course, with the flat keys it’s also important to remember that – with the exception of F major, they all have a flat in the title of the scale (B♭ major, E♭ major etc.).

Actually, when I was taught music theory, we were told to count four letter names forwards for the flat keys, rather than five backwards. I found this easier, and so pass the idea on to my own pupils – although, of course, it doesn’t fit in with the more widely-taught ‘Circle of Fifths’ idea.music circle of fifths

With some pupils, I will also explain how to work out relative majors of minor scales (by counting on three semitones – e.g. the relative major of A minor is C major) and that these share a key signature but, in the case of a harmonic minor scale you must raise the 7th note (hence the G♯ in A minor). Not many take this in straight away but it’s a good introduction to music theory.

Having struggled with the ‘hands together in similar motion’ scales, most pupils generally pick up contrary motions, chromatics and arpeggios much more easily.

However, there are some who have a ‘mental block’ with arpeggios (as with broken chords) and can’t get the hang of which three notes to play. For me this has never been an issue (although actually hitting the notes I intend to at speed can be a problem!): I’ve always thought of a chord in terms of note names (e.g. for an arpeggio of A♭ major I have a vague idea of something A-ish, C-ish and E-ish … and then instinctively know which ones to flatten i.e. A♭, C, E♭).

However, I don’t necessarily feel this is the best way to teach arpeggios and always start by explaining that you need the first note of the scale, the third note and the fifth. Unfortunately, even this doesn’t always produce the correct result. For example, some would attempt to play an F major arpeggio using the notes F, A, B♭ – apparently determined to show their awareness of a black note in the scale, regardless of the fact that B♭ is actually the fourth note and therefore not required. Others could do something as odd as playing a B♭ major arpeggio as B♭, D, F♯ because they’re just thinking of rough distances between notes, rather than the actual note names. As a teacher, you soon realise that explanations don’t always sink in that easily.

Major and Minor Confusion

At GRADE 2 and 3, ABRSM seems to deliberately challenge learners’ grasp of the major v. minor concept by having both versions of the same keys. At GRADE 1, pupils have to deal with both D major and D minor scales but there are no arpeggios to be learned. At GRADE 2, however, there can be some confusion with the arpeggios as it is D major which has the black note (F♯), while the major has white, yet it’s G minor which has the black note (B♭) while the major has white. I explain that the second note of a minor arpeggio (which happens to be the third note of the scale) is a semitone lower – and this may or may not be black.

One of the main fingering problems I encounter with arpeggios is that, in the ones with one black note, some pupils use 2,1,2,4 fingering in the right hand (2,1,4,2 in the left) whereas others find it more comfortable to use third rather than fourth fingers in both hands. Unfortunately, although at the first playing they will insist that one finger is considerably better than the other, by the time I see them again they have forgotten which one it was so I make sure I record it in their notebook and recommend making a decision and sticking to it.

At GRADES 3 and 4, B♭major arpeggio in the left hand always causes a bit of confusion as the recommended fingering actually starts on 3 or 4 (whereas most arpeggios beginning on black notes start with a 2 in the left hand).

Another problem is that – having learned that B major and B minor start with left hand fourth finger for the scale, learners then try to apply this to the arpeggio (not realising that there is no ‘need’ for a change of fingering here).

Sheer Volume

Generally, by the time they reach the higher grades, most pupils have acquired a basic understanding of how scales and arpeggios work (especially if they’ve passed their grade 5 theory) and the main challenge is coping with the sheer volume of scales (… just as the pupil thinks he’s done ‘everything’ at GRADE 5 – having played a major and minor scale and an arpeggio beginning on every single note – he will soon realise there are two types of minor scales – harmonic and melodic as well as – staccato scales, scales played a third apart, scales played a sixth apart, first inversions of arpeggios, second inversions of arpeggios, dominant 7ths, diminished 7ths … I could go on).

If I had to generalise, I suppose the greatest scale challenge with GRADE 6 is any minor scale starting on a black note and in GRADES 7 and 8 some of the variations on these scales – such as staccato versions, sixth apart etc.

Although I don’t have any statistics for which scales are most likely to cause problems at each grade – I feel years of experience have given me a pretty good idea of what they are. I generally decide to leave the most difficult until last to teach but then focus almost exclusively on these in the run-up to the exam.

When it comes to practising scales, the main advice – as with all aspects of piano-playing – is ‘take it very slowly to start with’. Of course, this doesn’t always happen – most pupils think they’ve remembered the black notes and fingering in a scale when they haven’t really and you must be prepared for plenty of mistakes.

Pianist’s Worst Enemy

The thing with mistakes is how you deal with them – and how you advise your pupil to deal with them. I mentioned this in an earlier chapter – but think it’s worth repeating here: never let your pupil ‘get away’ with mistakes: if he’s using a wrong finger in a scale there’s no point in carrying on. Ideally make him practise a scales three times correctly for every time incorrectly. It is vital that by the end of a practice, more correct versions of the scale should have been played than incorrect ones. Repeated mistakes are one of the pianist’s worst enemies.

The aim with scales is to get them right the first time. In pupils’ notebooks I have two columns for scales – FTR (First Time Right) and FTW (First Time Wrong) and I will add up and give a score out of 10 (more at the higher grades) each week for FTR scales. Generally, once I’ve started doing this (soon after all the scales for the grade have been learned) – I notice a marked improvement from week to week. If the pupil is made aware of the need for careful playing the first time he is more likely to be focussed and less likely to produce false starts.

If there are too many false starts in the exam, I imagine examiners might get slightly irritated. I advise my pupils to avoid these as much as possible but if they do happen (generally due to nerves) – to quickly restart if they’ve only played a few notes but if they are half-way through a scale to politely ask: “Please may I start that one again?” Then, be prepared for the examiner saying ‘no – just leave that one now’ – which he may do if pushed for time or if he feels there have been too many attempts’.