Improving Your Scales: Feature Article for Piano Professional Magazine

I’ve written about scales and arpeggios before here on my blog, but the following article was penned for the Piano Professional Magazine (Issue 34: Spring 2014), published by the European Piano Teachers Association or EPTA, which is designed for piano teachers. I write a regular feature article on technique for this very informative publication (find out more about EPTA here). Hopefully this article contains some useful advice and practice ideas for those keen to improve their scales. There is a handy PDF at the end of the article (10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales) to download and keep next to the piano too!

Scaling Heights With Happiness

Scales and arpeggios often receive a bad press. They are the foundation of good piano playing yet few want to play them let alone practice them. However, scales are an excellent way to hone and establish piano technique.

The development and concept of major and minor scales goes back as far as ancient Greek music; the origins of scales can be traced to the system of modes which evolved in Greek music and church music particularly. Modern major and minor scales were eventually developed alongside the ongoing evolution of keyboard and stringed instruments, and the various temperaments affiliated with all the ancient and modern tunings which were finally adopted.

Every pianist is expected to learn scales and arpeggios from the outset and they are included in virtually all piano exams irrespective of the grade or examining board. This is one indication of their significance but exams are certainly not the only reason why budding pianists need to focus on them. The benefits of good scale practice and thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios are numerous in fact, practised properly you could probably cultivate a sound technique from scale practice alone (although it’s advisable to use many other practice methods and musical material for technical development too).

Scales and arpeggios will first and foremost allow a pianist to become very familiar with all twenty-four keys; a crucial milestone in musical development. They will improve keyboard geography, rhythmic grasp, strengthen fingers, encourage proper legato playing, teach equality of touch, help develop endurance, train the ear, control knuckle movement, help control motor-activity, assist with the passing of the thumb under the hand and the hand over the thumb fluently, teach traditional fingering, encourage variety of tone production (dynamic variation), and flexibility of the wrists and arm movement. They can also promote independence of nuance and touch, variety of accentuation, different staccato and legato articulations and fluency with cross-rhythms, as well as complete co-ordination.

So they are indeed a very useful tool for generating superlative piano playing. One other often forgotten benefit is the role they play in improving sight-reading; if a student is routinely exposed to scales, arpeggios, chord shapes and their appropriate fingerings, then they become much easier to decipher when reading music at speed. Indeed thorough knowledge of scale patterns and shapes forms the bedrock of secure musical foundations.

So what is the best approach to scale practice and how can we keep ourselves both motivated and stimulated whilst working at them? There are many different ways to make practising scales and arpeggios more interesting, and with a little thought and imagination, they can even sound beautiful.

I believe students benefit from thinking about the musical considerations as well as the technical aspects associated with scales. So with this in mind, perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on them musically and once learnt, inject them with character and personality. This way they enhance a pianist’s musicianship rather than become just a test in agility. Every scale must be imbued with delicacy, warmth, a good sound, musical shape, grace and brilliance. Only then can they truly be regarded as effective and accurate. As with many facets of piano playing, merely playing the notes becomes a meaningless exercise, whether it’s a scale or a Mozart sonata. Students often ignore this important element at their peril precipitating the boredom so often associated with scale practice. Arpeggios also need a musical approach and I find them much easier to negotiate when the rhythm of movement (i.e. the thumb passing under the hand or third/fourth finger passing over) is thought of in terms of a musical phrase; this encourages smoothness in tone and hand movement thus avoiding jerky, unrhythmical playing.

A large part of technique is, of course, physical movement, but there are many reasons for using our minds and ears in a more fruitful, perceptive way. Indeed visualisation and imagination go a long way to creating excellent musicianship and greater facility too. Technique grows with the development and cultivation of the mind, musical awareness and personality. All these aspects can easily be applied to scales too, and it is definitely the quality of your scale practice that matters rather than the quantity.

Pupils and students have found the following suggestions and practice tips helpful whilst working at scales and arpeggios.

At the start of each scale practice session make sure your shoulders are down allowing every part of your upper torso to feel relaxed. The wrong kind of tension kills speed, so relaxation of the muscles is imperative here (tension is definitely required, but is only used at the exact moment of impact (that is, playing a note), after which relaxation must occur, otherwise your arms, hands or wrists will eventually ‘lock up’). Allow the fingers to work freely supported by arm weight. It’s a fact that you need to move when playing the piano (how else are you going to get from one end of the keyboard to the other?) this is especially true of scales, so allow your body to move freely and be aware of this when you are playing (it’s all too easy to block out physical sensations when you are focusing on playing the correct notes and keys).

It may sound obvious, but to play scales fluently and accurately, both hands need to be working equally well. So finger strength is paramount. The left hand must not be dragging behind the right. This is a very common problem. The best way to deal with it is to practice hands separately slowly, gradually increasing the speed.

It’s a good idea to start by practising two octave scales (only elongate to three and four octaves at a time when you have really grasped the patterns); the left hand will probably need more attention than the right regarding fingerings and hand positions. Everyone has their favourite hand positions, but when learning scales two crucial points arise; the number of accidentals (depending on the key) and the shape or pattern of each scale or arpeggio. If these points are observed completely from the outset then memorising will not be a problem, so it’s worth spending time getting this right from the beginning as all scales and arpeggios have to be played securely from memory anyway.

Once you have learnt the key and its shape, you will need to find a way of using appropriate arm weight and wrist movement allowing each finger to work properly on its ‘tip’. I am a real advocate of the fingers working on their tips i.e. the very top or ‘pad’ of your finger thus avoiding ‘flat’ fingers (many argue that flat fingers are effective but I prefer using my fingertips thus each finger acquiring a ‘hooked’ shape). The power should be coming from your arm weight, the knuckles supporting the fingers and the wrists working freely in a lateral and rotational motion. This technique not only allows flexible, free playing but also fosters excellent tone production and finger strength too. The fourth and fifth fingers are naturally weaker, but if they are encouraged to work well, functioning as independently as possible (from the other fingers) and via the knuckles (rather than the wrists which should feel free and ‘light’), then scale playing will be even and fluent. Spend time playing each note with a full sound, working slowly and purposefully, preferably with arm weight on each note to start with. This will help build up finger strength and achieve smooth, legato playing.

Rotational movement will play a vital role when dealing with the problem of passing the thumb under the hand (right hand scales) or fingers (usually the third or fourth in the left hand) over the hand. This does tie in with my earlier comment regarding flexibility. The more pliable the hand, then the easier this motion will be. The trick is to practice it so that the scale passage is not only completely stable rhythmically, but also the amount of tone or sound used for each note is matched exactly. Then your scales will be even. When practising very slowly, allow your hand position to move copiously i.e. encourage a complete lateral and rotational motion each time the thumb passes under in the right hand. Although this will feel awkward, exaggerated and uncomfortable to start with, it will allow your right hand and arm to get used to moving freely with no tension so when you practice up to speed, the whole arm will move flexibly and the movement itself will be much smaller and quicker. The same flexibility and motion also applies to the left hand when the third or fourth finger passes over the hand.

This works surprisingly well and needs careful consideration when applying to arpeggios which, by their nature, require lots more movement. Arpeggios rely on a perfect ‘swivel’ in the hand; your hand will need to return to the same position for each octave otherwise notes will not be accurate. This is especially true with the left hand. Rather like scales, they require slow separate hand practice before being played hands together. Get the perfect position or ‘swivel’ in both scales and arpeggios, and providing you have built up your finger strength, you will be able to play at very fast tempos with no difficulty. Try not to ‘block’ motions with tension or tense movements; we don’t consciously do this but it often happens, leading to inflexibility.

Articulation (or touch) is vital when playing scales, and staccato passagework needs a completely different approach to legato. Start by using your whole arm on each note, rather like the legato technique suggested above, only playing detached. Then introduce wrist staccato, playing every note with a separate wrist action, and finally you will need to use a finger staccato as you build up the speed. This takes a free wrist and total finger strength (a factor you will already be working on if you employ some of the suggestions above). There are many variations with articulation and you may want to think about implementing some of the following: legato, staccato, non-legato, marcato and leggiero. Once scales are really fluent, try playing legato in the right hand whilst playing staccato in the left and vice versa. You can build many different permutations regarding touch and they will all help in your quest to play scales perfectly.

It is worth mentioning the importance of fingering in scales and arpeggios. Many pianists (pupils, amateurs and professionals) like to invent their own, but scale and arpeggio fingerings are there for a reason. This is especially true of arpeggios, where I find fourth fingers in the left hand to be imperative (see the example below of a C major arpeggio in the left hand).

Extra example 1 scales

If you play this passage with a third finger on the second, fifth, ninth, and twelfth note, E (instead of the suggested fourth), you are immediately making your hand movement more awkward whereas with the fourth finger, this position is entirely natural as it’s in the shape the chord is usually played. Whereas in the second example below, which is in the key of D major, a third finger is preferable and more comfortable because of the addition of the F sharp.

Extra example 2 scales

So it does all depend on the shape or rather key of the scale or arpeggio. Fingering should support natural fluent scale playing.

Once you have grasped the keys, patterns and movements that are necessary for good scale playing, the next consideration should be how to co-ordinate your hands so that they play accurately and rhythmically at all times.

It’s a good idea to purchase a metronome. No one really enjoys learning to use one or indeed playing along to anything that feels unnatural or forced, however it’s challenging to learn to play in time effectively without one. It is possible to feel the pulse unaided, and of course pianists must learn to develop an ‘inner- pulse’, but slow metronome practice really does help achieve secure rhythmic scale playing. Start with slow tempi and increase as finger strength develops.

There are several ways to attain perfect co-ordination. The first is accentuation. Learning to play with accents; this will depend on how many octaves you are negotiating. Two and four octave scales can be accented like this:

Example 1 for Scales EPTA

And three octave scales can be accented in triplets:

Example 2 Scales EPTA.

This is a basic way to achieve co-ordination, however you may like to consider some of the following too:

Try basic dotted passage-work like this:

Example 3 Scales EPTA

Or this, practising two octaves apart:

Example 3 for scales article

Or this:

Example 5 for scales article

This can be quite helpful as well:

Example 6 for scales article

Then it’s possible to build up on the accent ideas, as this will help with finger independence:

Example 7 for scales article

Or cross rhythms like this:

Example 8 for scales article

Try different dynamics in each hand:

Extra example 3 scales

And you could even try something like this:

Extra example 4 scales

The last two examples could potentially be practised in so many different guises and corresponds with my earlier recommendations regarding playing scales and exercises expressively with plenty of sound, dynamic gradation and musicianship. This will really improve your scale and arpeggio playing tremendously.

Some find it useful to practice hands two octaves apart which will encourage astute listening. Listening skills, as with all piano playing, should be perpetually fine-tuned and honed. This is perhaps a very important factor when practising; always play exercises and scales when you are fresh and fully focused.

I encourage advanced students to establish a scale rota; if you are taking an exam like Grade 8 (whatever the exam board), it will be time-consuming to practice every scale every day, so a good plan is to build in a way of playing all keys and permutations effectively from week to week. Practising two or three keys per day is a good way of doing this. Make sure each version or variation is worked on. If you are doing the key of C for example, you would look at all scales (thirds, sixths, contrary motions) and arpeggios with their appropriate inversions (as well as dominant and diminished sevenths) in C major and minor.

Practising scales in a different order from that presented in your scale book really makes sense; they will always be tested in an entirely different order in an exam and it’s surprising just how distracting this can be. It can play havoc with your memory, so be prepared. Another tip is to practice with someone else who is also working at scales (a scale buddy!). You can then ask each other scales or arpeggios, and learn from each other too. Scale groups or small classes can work well especially if two or more pianos (or keyboards) are available, and then you can play scales together (although you will probably need a metronome!) as well as testing each other separately.

If you implement a few of these suggestions and ideas, you will be well on the way to developing an exemplary scale and arpeggio technique, and you may even find they become an enjoyable part of your practice regime.

10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales

Read the original article here: EPTA Article on Scales

© Melanie Spanswick

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.


2 thoughts on “Improving Your Scales: Feature Article for Piano Professional Magazine

  1. I play the scales in thirds and sixths. I enjoy playing the scales and arpeggios and diminished and dominant sevenths. I think they are essential for piano playing proficiency.

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