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 & Arpeggios – love them or hate them? 6 reasons why you need to practice them.

‘Now for the scales and arpeggios, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with baited breath…

This is a typical scenario when pupils are faced with scales and arpeggios in an examination. 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 much about playing at speed (or fast passagework) but, if practised correctly, they also build up finger technique or firmer fingers, they can hone good tone production, and they provide the opportunity to learn every single key and key signature. And I feel they should be approached as an enjoyable part of the practice process.

I love scales, and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard. 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. Regular practice of scales and arpeggios can develop excellent hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they flow up and down the keyboard. Focusing on the left hand as you play can help you to ‘hear’ it clearly and subsequently finger articulation will hopefully become clearer, and eventually, the left-hand will easily keep pace with the right.
  2. They can establish accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings should ideally be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated in every octave as you move up the keyboard. Aim to concentrate on remembering where the fourth finger sits in every octave; it’s surprising how this can help finger memory.
  3. Scales and arpeggios can form the basis of firmer fingers, sometimes known as ‘finger strength’; every finger is utilized when playing scales. Play on the finger-tips and practice with a deeper touch at slower speeds.
  4. They can improve keyboard geography; much of the keyboard needs to be covered quickly building a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing. When tackling four-octave scales, ensure you begin as far down in the bass as possible.  This makes it easier to remember where to stop and turn around at the top!
  5. Scales and arpeggios help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. It’s an extremely useful and vital feature in itself. To assist memory, study the circle of fifths; a chart which clearly sets out all the keys in relation to each other.
  6. They can establish a strong sense of pulse and articulation, which are both crucial for playing the piano. Try practising with a metronome. Start with a very slow speed – one ‘tick’ to every note, in order to really ‘place’ each note rhythmically. After a while set a faster pulse, and slightly accent the first group of every four notes (or every three if playing three-octave scales). And finally, practice up to speed.

When you next sit down to do some practice, why not start your session with scales and arpeggios? This way you’ll not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. And you may just 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.