Piano Lesson Format 2: Scales

After the ‘chat’ and the discussion about the week’s practice, the next part of the lesson is taken up with scales (for the learners who have reached that stage).

I generally introduce the first scale when a pupil is up to the piece The Escalator about half way through John W. Schaum’s The Red Book (this point is usually reached between six months to a year after starting lessons). There is an explanation in the book of the pattern of a major scale – tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. I explain this briefly (although it doesn’t necessarily sink in, so I’ll bring it up again a while later) and then teach the scale of C major – two octaves, right hand only (as you would for an ABRSM grade 1 examination) – demonstrating this myself to start with. I skip the piece The Escalator as I feel the ‘extra’ notes in it are not particularly helpful.

I teach scales regardless of whether or not my pupil wishes to take exams. So, even my two current pensioner pupils always warm up their hands at the start of the lesson with a few scales and arpeggios (played hands together and generally around ABRSM grade 2 level) – although I introduce new ones less frequently and spare them the ordeal of trying to memorize the more complex scales.

Before starting to teach scales, I explain why they’re so important: they give the learner a greater understanding of keys and key signatures, they warm-up the fingers, they’re something which can be played ‘by heart’ and, of course, they’re essential for passing exams. However, even those who concede their importance, rarely enjoy playing them (… with a few exceptions: there are some children who will actually say: “This one’s my favourite scale”! I love it when this happens.)

(Although scales do have to be learned ‘by heart’ for an exam, anyone who wants the support of a book to remind them of the fingering and scales for each exam grade, can purchase a scales book at Musicroom.com or from Amazon UK/Amazon US, eBay.co.uk/eBay.com).

Slowly is the Key

On the whole, teaching scales can be extremely frustrating and it’s one of my least favourite parts of the job (along with filling in the tax form and collecting money from late payers). Again, ‘slowly’ is the key word and it helps if the pupil is encouraged to think out – and even visualise – the scale carefully before he actually starts playing it.

Sometimes I may ask my pupil to recite the finger numbers in order (without actually playing anything): “123,1234,123,12345 and downwards ‘(5)4321,321,4321,321”. If he is able to, I will encourage him to say these finger numbers out loud as he plays. (Although some of the younger ones find it too difficult to count backwards while playing the right notes – especially when there are black notes to think about as well).

It’s important for the learner to realise that the scale needs to be played smoothly with no ‘gaps’ so it’s better to start off slowly to give himself chance to get the thumb under in time. The following week, if the right hand has been mastered successfully, I then teach C major left hand, and so on through all the ABRSM grade 1 scales.

I always make sure that the last one I teach is F major – due to the different fingering pattern in the right hand. Firstly I’ll explain why the fingering is different by showing the pupil that it’s always better to avoid using the thumb on a black note – so a fourth finger is used instead. Then I play the scale and draw attention to the fact that at the top of the scale the fifth finger is ‘spare’.

At this point, I often say: “I can tell when someone hasn’t practised this scale straight after his lesson or when he hasn’t referred to his notebook because he’ll use his fifth finger and play a G!” (Even more bizarrely, some learners play an F♯ at the top of an F major scale!) The fact that I’ve pointed out the likelihood of this happening makes a conscientious pupil particularly determined not to make the same mistake: he is anxious to prove that he has read his notebook and has practised straight after the lesson.

Learned by Heart

I would not normally advise pupils or their parents to purchase a scales book, although some decide they’d prefer to have one to refer to in case they forget sharps and flats or fingering patterns (although I generally write these out in the pupil’s notebook). Scales need to be learned by heart for the exam.

When it comes to teaching a scale ‘hands together’ – which is necessary for ABRSM grade 2 and onwards – I make a point of telling the pupil that this is not going to be easy and not to get too disappointed or annoyed if he doesn’t get it right to start with. I give an example of an adult learner for whom it took three weeks of lessons devoted almost exclusively to one scale before he could play it successfully. However, I hasten to add, his second ‘hands together’ scale was learned in a matter of minutes … as were the majority of subsequent scales.

Very few people find that playing a two-handed scale comes naturally. In my experience, the most successful method is to advise them to concentrate on the note played by the fourth finger in each hand: in a regularly-fingered scale, the fourth finger has only one note that it’s ‘allowed’ to go on (unlike the third) and must play this note at every possible opportunity. (Odd-fingered scales such as F major are, of course, exceptions to this – but, by the time the pupil starts to learn this one, he has started to play hands-together scales a little more ‘naturally’).

I also tell them that once they have been playing two-handed scales for a while, they may prefer to focus on the hand in which errors are more likely to occur. In my case I still watch my left hand throughout the scale as I feel my right is far more dependable.

Broken Chords

With the grade 1 broken chords – I explain the principle (the broken chord being based on the three notes of the tonic triad), demonstrate how to play one and then let the pupil try. They usually find this extremely difficult; the best method I’ve found is to point with a pencil to the next note required whilst I say the appropriate finger number until the pupil gets the hang of it. They then have to realise that the left hand uses different fingering – and that this is all to do with the number of notes ‘missed out’ between the ones which are actually played.

It is also important that the pupil counts three beats in a bar for a broken chord, so that the note played half way through is held. Many pupils are so busy counting finger numbers that they struggle to count beats as well and end up using a different beat than they started with when saying “2, 3” as they hold the half-way note. The only way to solve this problem is to count for them until they get the hang of it.

Practising scales can be boring for a lot of learners and many find it so tedious that they just don’t do it at all. Others do more harm than good by practising with incorrect fingering which will leave them with a ‘finger short’ or a ‘spare finger’ at the end.

Sometimes, even those who finish on the correct finger, are inconsistent with finger order in the middle of the scales (e.g. some use a third instead of a fourth and then make up for it later with a fourth instead of a third). I don’t accept anyone saying: “Oh well – it worked out all right”.  That’s not the point. The point is the fingers need to learn a pattern and stick to it – varying the order can only cause confusion and mistakes.

Total accuracy is needed with scales and the aim is always to play them correctly without a restart. In the early stages, I encourage the learner to give each scale careful thought before his fingers touch the keys. Despite this advice, many still go ahead without knowing which sharps or flats the scale requires. It can become very irritating to hear the same scale restarted three or four times just because the player hasn’t given it any thought.

In some cases, pupils find it particularly helpful to have the names of scales written in the back of the notebook (in order, starting with C major, then ‘sharp scales’, then ‘flat scales’ and finally minors) with the relevant sharps or flats alongside. Visual learners will then remember the sharps and flats in each scale by picturing the words ‘G major – F♯’, then remembering that ‘D major’ is written underneath this so must have F♯ sharp and one other. (If they remember the order of sharps in a major scale – which I also write in the back of the notebook – they’ll know the second sharp must be a C. I explain that this ordering doesn’t apply with minor scales and that in these, sharps and flats can even be mixed together).

Constant Rhythm

Pupils need to realise that scales aren’t really difficult … as long as they’re practised very regularly. The majority have the same fingering with a simple, constant rhythm and there is no music to read. The problems arise mainly when scales aren’t practised regularly (or when they are practised incorrectly) – in which case key signatures are easily forgotten and confused.

With my sons, I have little slips of paper with the names of all the scales – shuffled up – in a box. They put the box on the side of the piano, take a slip from the top, play the scale (preferably correctly but if not they must replay it several times) and then put it to the bottom of the pile. They play around 15 scale-type things (including arpeggios, dominant 7ths etc.) every morning.

When my second son started learning scales, I used a reward system. He had a timetable in his notebook and had to mark how many out of 10 he got right first time each day. Every time he achieved 10 out of 10 he earned a sweet. This idea may be suggested to parents (although, of course the more health-conscious will want to substitute something else for sugary treats).

I try not to let scales dominate the lesson, as most pupils would much prefer to get on with the pieces. So, rather than go through all those which have been learned, I ask them to play a few which they know well and then pick on the ones played incorrectly the previous week (which have been noted down in the notebook). I award a sticker if these are played correctly – and a give a lecture if they aren’t.

I only introduce a new scale when I feel that the ones already learned are reasonably well-know.

(There is more on scales in the article Piano Examinations: Scales).

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