The Art of Practicing Scales
I remember once reading a quote that went something like this: “Like taking my vitamins, practising my scales and arpeggios was something that I knew would be good for me, but I wasn’t sure exactly why.” I sympathise with this attitude and remember with clarity the struggle I had with scales when I first started learning them and then later when I entered the Associated Board examinations. By the time I took my grade 8 exam, it felt as if I had learnt over a 100 scales; in similar motion, contrary motion, thirds apart, sixth apart, chromatic… later on I learnt to appreciate the importance of scales and arpeggios, and I wish someone had explained to me earlier why it is necessary to practise these at first seemingly uninteresting and unmusical exercises.
Scales are the ABCs of music. They are the foundation that music is built around and should definitely be an integral part of your practice diet.
Scales are the ABCs of music. They are the foundation that music is built around and should definitely be an integral part of your practice diet. As much as it can be tempting to throw scale practice out for good and just get on with music-making, we should attempt to understand their benefits and approach them as something to enjoy rather than dread.
What are the benefits of practising scales and arpeggios?
- Developing finger strength and independence
Every finger is utilised when playing scales, forcing the player to make every finger work in an organised fashion. This helps build up muscle strength and finger independence as well as flexibility and accuracy which are all vital when tackling technically demanding pieces.
- Flexibility and even tone
Shifting the thumb under the hand and making sure we don’t hear a loud “bump” every time we play the thumb is one of the most important techniques every pianist has to master, and scales are the best way to learn this. A lot of people never really learn to play with their thumb, so whenever they use their thumb they drop their entire wrist. This leads to unevenness in sound, especially in fast runs, and to technical problems. The thumb needs to work the same way as all the other fingers, which means it needs to be able to move up and down independently without causing tension in the hand.
The right hand movements
We have to take good care to watch every movement of our hands carefully to make sure the movements are all smooth and effortless, the same as the sound we produce. Here it helps to remember that the most effective way of practising is slow practice. Only this way you can watch every movement carefully and make adjustments, if necessary.
A thorough understanding of chords, broken chords, scales and arpeggios significantly speeds up the learning process and enhances your ability to memorise.
- Recognising the concept of key centre and tonality
Most pieces of the piano repertoire are largely based on the diatonic system, which means they are based around one specific key (for instance C major) and its scale, chords, and arpeggios. Most melodies are based around the scale of the key the piece is written in, and the left hand accompaniments for example are mostly arpeggios, broken chords or chords. A thorough understanding of chords, broken chords, scales and arpeggios significantly speeds up the learning process and enhances your ability to memorise. The reason for this is that you memorise much easier if you understand something. For example, three bars of left hand accompaniment can become a simple broken chord in C Major, rather than 24 separate notes.
How to practise scales and arpeggios
Whether you love or hate scales all depends on how you learn them, like with any other skill. Scales are often thought of as “boring exercises” because most people tend to play them in the same way all the time, straight through in a mechanical fashion without any variations or musicality. Well, that should not be the case. Instead, you should practice scales by incorporating different technical challenges, and always with musical purpose.
- Slow practice
Slow practice is crucial when it comes to practising scales and arpeggios. When doing slow practice, it is essential that you get every note as even as possible with the correct fingering. The objective of scales is not how fast you can go, but how fast you can go while playing all the right notes with even touch and always with beautiful sound. It is still worth playing them slowly, even when you can play scales at a fast tempo, as this makes sure that you still have the notes securely under your fingers. It also helps develop other skills such as phrasing and tone production, if practised accordingly.
- Rhythmic practice
Playing your scales and arpeggios in various rhythms is one of the most effective practice methods. It exposes the weaknesses in your technique as well as challenges you when you group the notes differently. Try playing scales and arpeggios in triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, and so on, by adding an accent on every third, fourth, or fifth note respectively. Another good way of practising is by playing scales in dotted rhythms as opposed to the common way of playing scales in straight quavers.
Dynamics are very important in scale work. Start by playing the scale really softly all the way through with all notes sounding evenly. Then do the same but playing it as loud as possible, however don’t forget to listen to your sound. Loud doesn’t mean ugly! Lastly, practice your scales and arpeggios with gradual crescendos and diminuendos.
Incorporating a variety of articulation in scale work can be very beneficial and a lot of fun. Practicing with different articulations helps improve control, accuracy and speed. Try to practise your scales and arpeggios sometimes staccato and sometimes legato, sometimes with or without pedal, both hands together and left hand and right hand separately.
It is advisable to play scales in different intervals. Playing notes in patterns going up and down the scale will familiarise both fingers and your ears with small chunks of notes that commonly show up in music, for example playing up and down the scale in intervals of thirds (in the key of C major left hand starts on C, right hand on E), fifths (left hand on C and right hand on G), sixths (left hand on E and right hand on C) or tenths (left hand on C and right hand a compound 3rd higher).
By starting the scale practice with different note of the scale means you really know them. And if you think about it, scale passages in actual pieces of music can start off with any random notes, not always on the tonic.
- Contrary motion
You can also play scales in contrary motion too. Not just the ones listed on your ABRSM grade requirements, but all of them. Starting an octave apart, have the right hand play ascending notes of the scale whilst the left hand plays descending notes. Try this method with your arpeggios as well. This is one of the trickiest ways of practicing scales and arpeggios, but one that brings you great fulfilment when mastered. Once playing contrary motion an octave apart is mastered, try playing contrary motion scales a third, sixth, or tenth apart.
- Four in a row
Another good pattern of practicing your scales and arpeggios is what I call ‘four in a row’. Start on the first degree of the scale and play four notes in a row. Then start on the second degree and play four notes again. Continue this pattern up the scale and then back down.
It is also essential when practicing scale and arpeggios to start on different notes of the scale instead of just the tonic. This prevents a certain laziness which can occur if we begin the same exercises the same way every day. By starting the scale practice with different note of the scale means you really know them. And if you think about it, scale passages in actual pieces of music can start off with any random notes, not always on the tonic. You will then be able to gain a deeper understanding of the scale, and this is an invaluable asset when it comes to learning and making sense of a new piece.
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to develop a thorough understanding of scales, chords and arpeggios right from the start of learning an instrument. Musicality, finger strength, technique, flexibility, an understanding of music theory and memorisation all strongly depend on this crucial aspect of music.
Every good musician and teacher emphasises the importance of scale practice, and in contrast to technical exercises such as Brahms' 51 Exercises or Hanon's 60 Exercises for the Virtuoso Pianist, scale and arpeggio practice is not controversial. But this is a topic for a future post!