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). Over to Jane…
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.
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!
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.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.