The Key to Scales and Arpeggios: Weekend Competition

Today’s guest post has been written by Jane Mann. Jane is a piano teacher and writer, and, in this article, she highlights her scale book series (published by Alfred Music UK), telling the story behind its conception.

We are also running a weekend competition, too, and therefore, for your chance to win one of two books on offer, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of the post. We will be announcing the two winners on Monday evening (British time).

People often ask me how I came up with a new approach to learning scales and arpeggios, with a simple technique for fixing the fingering and muscle memory.

It goes back to my childhood and the effects of living in a home where live music was a natural part of our lives. Watching my parents and older brothers playing instruments or singing was an everyday happening.

Whenever I hear a Bach suite or trio sonata for harpsichord, cello and recorder I am reminded of the sound of these pieces wafting up to my tiny bedroom while I lay awake listening. Choosing to play a harpsichord or a wooden recorder was considered unusual back then. It was around the time of the early music revival, a movement of great interest to my parents.

I grew up within an atmosphere where making music was always fun and enjoyable. There was never anything competitive about it and no pressure to achieve. My brothers learnt to play the piano amongst other instruments and I longed to be able to play the pieces I was hearing. Particular harmonies struck me as rich and exciting. Fast passages seemed fun. I wanted to do that!

I remember my mother showing me the basics of the geography of the piano and a tutor book, but I was pretty much left to work most of it out on my own. The incentive to be able to play the next piece in the book was somehow strong in me, and so I gradually moved toward being able to play reasonably well at primary level.

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Eventually, my parents suggested I too should have lessons. So off I went aged 13, for tuition with a lady who appeared to me to be very ancient and unfortunately, extremely dull! I was bored and uninspired by the music chosen for me so not only stopped practising but also gave up playing for fun and the lessons stopped.

But eventually the piano pulled me back and soon I was trying out all sorts of my own choices of pieces. Any book piled on top of the piano which wasn’t too difficult was fumbled through and sometimes I worked to improve the difficult parts. I also began learning the violin at school.

Does this sound rather idyllic? Well, in many ways it was. There was a lot of laughter and enjoyment, listening and taking part, including evenings with the youth club playing The Toy Symphony, family music making together and many concerts.

However, although we were given this rich and varied musical upbringing, the relaxed attitude about how this happened meant we encountered difficulties later on as we progressed. For example, we were never asked if we had practised and so we didn’t do very much and we were not encouraged toward taking exams or pressurised in any way. I discovered years later that this may have been because my mother had been encouraged to win many music prizes and my grandfather yelled from the kitchen if she made an error while practising!

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For myself, the consequence of this was that when I decided to have piano lessons again, in my 20s, my technique was poor and my fingering was completely random, even though I had reached the level of Grade 5 standard by myself. I had no idea that these things were important and when my teacher suggested I needed to correct my fingering, I didn’t see any need to do so.

But gradually I realised that in order to play passages musically I needed method and technique with completely secure fingering and this could only be achieved through repeated practice in order to fix the muscle memory. By watching and listening to performances I could see and hear the difference when these things were put into practice.

The most interesting part of this for me was that once I began working in this way, I actually really enjoyed it because I was much more successful! There is a huge satisfaction in being able to fix a passage of music completely securely in order to work further to create a beautifully musical sound.

My brothers also found they had to work through similar experiences, learning that music making is a mixture of many different elements and concentrated, correct practice is hugely important. Spontaneity, discipline and creativity all have their place.

I have now been teaching the piano for over 30 years and although my main intention is to encourage students with enthusiasm and to nurture their musicality, I am an absolute stickler for correct fingering in particular! It is much quicker to learn a piece correctly straight away and then you have a secure framework to begin creating the musical sounds.

Fingering in scales is also very important and sometimes these exercises are tricky to manage correctly.

Many of my pupils struggled to learn scales and arpeggios and when playing with both hands together, fingering often became muddled, particularly on descending. I would sometimes find that a student’s fingering had become very muddled just before an exam, but correcting this with last-minute changes can be extremely difficult.

However, I gradually worked out that many scales had a pattern where particular fingers played simultaneously.

For example, in A minor, both 3rd fingers play together throughout and there are 13 scales which have this pattern!

Once my students understood these simultaneous fingering patterns, they began to play without mistakes. Scales were quick and easy to learn, correct and secure, even when playing hands together which can be more difficult. What a relief and how exciting that this method works so easily!

Gradually I worked out the various finger patterns for all the scales and arpeggios, major and minor. There are only five scale and four arpeggio patterns in total.

Even G♯ minor, which can be daunting, becomes easy to play when the fingering pattern is realised:  3rd fingers play together on C♯ and G♯!

I wanted to share this key to mastering scales and arpeggios using the simultaneous finger pattern systems so I created a series of graded books The Key to Scales and Arpeggios by Jane Mann, published by Alfred/Faber Music.

Playing hands together is simple!

The clear stave and keyboard illustrations make this method accessible for those without music reading ability too and is particularly helpful for those with dyslexia. Just follow the rules or anchor points which identify which RH and LH fingers play simultaneously. Students can learn by themselves. You can’t go wrong! It is a valuable tool for all pianists.

Playing with hands together is effortless and secure.

This new series contains the latest updates for the 2020 Syllabus for ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall.

Don’t forget to leave a comment in the comment box below this post, if you’d like to win a copy!

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Jane Mann


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Hiroko Yamamoto says:

    This book is for my students who have been struggling to learn the scales for their grade exams.
    I also wish if the exam system could change so that they select the keys according to the student’s choice of syllabus music; the test then becomes more meaningful.
    My point is if they don’t see any connection or meaning for what they are working on directly , they can’t motivate themselves to learn the scales that have been selected.

  2. Lynne Davis says:

    Looks a really great resource. Would love to win as an inspection copy to consider recommending for all my piano pupils. Always looking for new innovative resources… the individual grade scales books are not cost effective.

  3. Melanie says:

    I’d love to win a copy.
    I start my pupils on scales as soon as possible and I get them excited about learning them. One of my pupils always comes in and begs to play scales for the whole lesson! This book would be brilliant to complement my teaching and help some of them who struggle a little with fingering.

  4. Looks like a great and useful resource for developing my speed and flexible within pieces also to build my understanding of scales and harmony. I am late adult beginner around grade 5 and would love to win a copy please. Would also be useful in my work with SEND adult students in performing act and singing classes. They love singing and also currently teaching the Kodaly singing system to aid understanding ,enjoyment and observation skills and eye hand movements. Also it would aid speech development

  5. Carrie Lindsay says:

    I enjoyed this article and could relate to the part about not using proper fingering. I never learned technique in my lessons, and made up my own fingering. I, too, am a stickler for correct fingering with my students. I would love to win a copy of your book because I’m sure there’s a lot I could learn…and pass on to my students.

  6. Looks like this visual approach could be really useful while a lot of us are still teaching and learning remotely.🖐🎹

  7. Kassandra W. says:

    This looks great! Definitely going to look into it.

  8. Greg Moore says:

    Thanks for the splendid article. I also independently figured out that there are really only a few scales and it’s just a matter of putting the fingers on the appropriate black key, which freed me and my students to enjoy music. Also, I had been an organist and was terrified of college-level exercises, but had a required semester of piano, where Dr. Gillespie taught me just two exercises – piano-length scales and arpeggio-hopping without depressing the keys, then eventually playing them – which liberated me. Your article was rich encouragement to focus on the things which matter most, and to keep simple simple.

  9. Reneé says:

    Yes, you are spot on! Scales are the foundation of all in music. I spend the first half of all lessons only on scales and technique. And yes, my biggest battle is to let the students see, understand and ‘feel’ the patterns. Sadly, some of them take a long time to believe me, Not willing to buy into my enthusiasm for conquering all scales. This book will maybe be a solid proof for them!

  10. Emily says:

    I’ve been thinking of making resources so my students can visualise the scales. I always picked up scales easily as I am a very visual learner and could remember the pattern each scale made on the keys. A lot of my students find this difficult and usually we would draw the scale out paper, but this is difficult with online lessons! This looks like a fantastic resource!

    1. Greg Moore says:

      However…! We might have a Book 2 for the technique: “How to Cheat” (Substitutions Required in this Restaurant) or (The Slippery Slope to Bach). Doing parallel thirds and sixths, to begin with, requires rhythmic substitution, and playing a Bach Fugue requires acrobatics that are not in any book, often swinging the right thumb down just to catch a 16-note in the left, or making a finger slide like a slug up to a black note. Yes, we all know the pros simply leave out some of the impossible notes; but if you don’t know how to cheat properly and correctly, you will crash at polyphony. What do you think?

  11. Many thanks to all those who took part in this competition, which has now ended. 🙂

  12. Wendy Burke says:

    I was fascinated to read your article Jane of your early childhood and development of your piano playing.
    As a friend of 40 years or so I knew something of this already but your article has brought it all together and given me more understanding of your background and musical development – your drive and self teaching is a most impressive journey.
    As you know from the lessons you once gave me- when I nearly fell off the stool laughing, I struggled with fingering.
    My piano sits neglected in the corner of my room – always in my “to do” book but I allow life to get in the way.
    Your article has inspired me to dust off the keys and have another go and to try out your book.
    You have clearly made a huge contribution towards the future of new pianists of all ages and abilities making the techniques of learning easier and fun.

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