Why practice piano scales and how to practice them

Why practice scales?

Scales are the building blocks of music.  Music is a language and to speak and communicate language effectively means knowing something about grammar and learning as much vocabulary as you can. 

Practising scales, broken chords and arpeggios does so many things to help you on your way to becoming as good as you possibly can on the piano.  Reaching your potential as a pianist is a good aspiration to have because it will allow musical energy to flow through you and out into the world easily and naturally.  What can be better than that?  

Think of the rally driver who is at one with his car as he moves around a circuit, maintaining high speed with perfect control.  The driver is not thinking about whether he needs to change gear, or whether he can remember how to turn that difficult corner at speed.  He is at one with his car, intuitively steering and automatically moving through his gears as necessary whenever the need arises.  This is what you should aspire to do on the piano – become one with the music.  Your fingers are your tools so keeping those tools sharp can only improve your playing and allow the music to flow in the most natural way possible. 

Scales can help your fingers warm up and become more flexible at the beginning of practice and can improve speed

Practising scales using exactly the same fingerings each time can help you to remember patterns.  Establishing fingering patterns while you are playing improves your sight reading and speeds up learning a new piece or song.

Learning scales give you a sense of key and teaches you key signatures.  As a beginner or elementary student, while it might be easiest to play everything in the key of C, you could be missing out on the different vibrations of other keys.  For example, A major has a bright sound whereas D flat major has a slightly warmer vibration. Why miss out on all those different vibrations?

Sheet music is often written in keys other than C major.  For example, while it is common for classical music to be composed in all keys, it is not uncommon to find sheet music of the latest pop songs in F sharp major, A flat major or F minor.  

Broken chords and arpeggios improve your knowledge of chords.  A knowledge of chords is an essential element of music and the more you know about them, the better your piano playing will be

How to practice scales

A common mistake made by piano students is to slowly read through a new piano scale once or twice and then say ‘I’ve spent five minutes on this scale slowly slogging through it two or three times.  I’ve had enough now; I’m tired.’  This is NOT the way to practise a new scale.  Consider running through a field of long grass. If you run through the field just once or twice, the long grass will spring back up very quickly.  So much so that you would never know you had run through it.  Learning scales like this is tiring and makes you weary very quickly and doesn’t effectively achieve the desired result.  To make that long grass create a path you will remember you will have to tread it down and tread it down well.

So what to do? Play the first couple of notes of the scale with your right hand and repeat them backwards and forwards several times.  When you feel comfortable with those first two notes (and can remember them by heart), add the third note and continue moving up and down, backwards and forwards until you feel more comfortable with just three notes.  Continue adding notes until you can move up and down the scale with ease, paying particular attention to the notes where you have to tuck under your thumb.  Can you turn your thumb under smoothly? Now do the same with your left hand.  Finally, do the very same with both hands together.  In this way, you will really be treading down that path, firmly planting the notes and the fingerings of those notes of the scale into your memory.  Not only this, in one practice session alone, instead of repeating the scale once or twice (never to be remembered again) you will have repeated the notes perhaps up to 50 times or more!  (And dare I say, focussed your brain just that little bit more on what notes you are actually playing)

My suggestion while doing this is to consider the scale practice as aerobics and brisk exercise for your fingers and brain.  Don’t take too much time between repetitions, stopping each time you complete one pattern of notes.  Move up and down with your fingers, first with 2 notes, then 3 notes, then 4, up and down, up and down until you feel you have really exercised your fingers.  Don’t over do it!  Don’t strain your fingers!  Everything on the piano needs to be relaxed, without strain.  If you feel any strain, stop what you are doing and take a break. 

Something else worth trying once you have the notes worked out, is to practise the scales piano (quiet), forte (loud)  with a crescendo (becoming louder) or with a diminuendo (becoming quieter).  When you are certain you are able to connect every single note from one to the next, even when turning your thumbs under, perhaps try playing the scale staccato (short and detached).

One thing you should always try to do is to make your scales and arpeggios sound as musical as you possibly can.  Really listen to what you are playing! Do you remember a time when you were learning how to read and as you were reading the words on a page, you might point to each word individually, slowly moving through each word in a sentence?  Then, over time, as you became more fluent at reading, instead of trying to work out individual words, you began to move fluently over a whole sentence? This is what you are trying to achieve when playing scales on the piano.  Try not to play each note of a scale as if pointing it out as an individual note.  Try to see how all the notes relate to each over a whole sentence or phrase.  Then aim to make that phrase have fluency, expression and meaning.

You could also try grouping the notes in a)twos – 1 and 2 and, or b) threes – 1 ee and 2 ee and, and c) fours – 1 ee and a 2 ee and a.

More soon