How should I practice my scales?

The music exam season is virtually upon us and so  the inevitable question of scale practice arises.  Whether you are taking Grade 1 or Grade 8, you will need to practice your scales regularly. There is always a strong temptation to just play them through quickly moving on to more interesting parts of your exam. Try not to do this. Scales can be both fun and  rewarding as well as a real challenge. Think of them as little adventures up and down your keyboard and relish the fact that your fingers and hands can play at speed with excellent co-ordination.

It can be a good idea to establish a practice schedule when tackling scales. It’s not so important when taking the lower grades but when you reach Grade 5 and above there are many scales/keys to learn so aim to work at them methodically.

1. One way to make sure each scale is worked at regularly is to have a little practice chart looking at 3 or 4 keys per day in rotation. Then you can practice all the different technical exercises in those keys; similar motion scales, thirds/sixths apart, contrary motions and all forms of arpeggios. This is very effective and ensures complete preparation.

2. Once you have established this chart, take your time with each key fully absorbing and memorizing each key signature. It can be too easy to blindly practise E major without really knowing it contains four sharps and is related to C sharp minor! All these things are important and can help build your confidence so when the examiner asks you to play a scale in the exam, you don’t get flustered.

3. Fingering is so important when playing scales and without real adherence to it you will be unable to play at speed. So really learn the suggested scale fingerings as you start playing each scale and then stick to them. Separate hand practice can help here.

4. Always start practising slowly so that both hands are well co-ordinated and try to produce a full tone or sound as this will help build up finger strength. Gradually increase the speed over a few weeks.

5. Scales should be played rhythmically and with purpose. Some students find it a good idea to practice them with a metronome. If you don’t fancy this, then you need to find a way of establishing a regular pulse.

Here are a few tips to make scale practice easy. Start enjoying your scales – they CAN be fun!!


My publications:

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.


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Scales – 6 reasons why you need to practice them.

‘Now we will test your scales, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with baited breath……

This is the usual scenario when pupils are faced with scales. Most pianists don’t like scales or scale practice. Some ask if they are really necessary. For me, they are the most important part of exam practice. Not only do they teach piano students everything they need to know about fast playing (or fast passagework) but they also build up finger technique, tone production and provide the opportunity to learn every key. They should be approached as something to enjoy rather than dread.

I love scales. I always have and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard, but I realize that I am in the minority. Scales are very useful and if you can play them well you will be on the way to developing a secure technique. Technique is essential for good playing and it really means the ability to get around the notes accurately.

Scales and arpeggios are important for all of the following reasons:

1. Scales develop hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they run up and down the keyboard.

2. Scales help develop the ability to play accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings need to be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated every octave as you move up and down the keyboard.

3. Scales help develop finger strength; every finger is utilized when playing scales, forcing the pianist to make every finger work properly.

4. Scales help to improve a pupil’s keyboard geography; to play them up to speed, large amounts of keyboard need to be covered quickly so the pupil will build up a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing.

5. Scales help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. This is an extremely useful and important feature in itself.

6. Scales help students develop a strong sense of rhythm, articulation and speed, which are all important for playing the piano. They also encourage good tone production.

Here are just a few reasons why scales are probably the most important test in any piano exam. So when you next sit down to do some practice, why not start with scales? This way you will not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. You never know, you may end up enjoying them.


My publications:

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.