How to teach scales effectively

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

As a young pianist I really struggled with scales.  In fact, I only passed the scale element in my music exams in Grade 1 and 8 and it wasn’t until doing my associated diploma (over 400 scales) that I fully mastered some patterns!

Because of my own struggles, I have spent a huge amount of time developing a wide range of activities for teaching scales.  My own students don’t struggle like I did.

It appears my weakness in learning scales has helped me develop some helpful techniques to teach them.  I share them here to provide some new ideas as we all embark on the new academic year trying to help our students master those repetitive patterns!

What are the steps to learning scales?

  1. Firstly, what the notes are
  2. Secondly what fingering to use
  3. And finally having the technical skills to make the scale sound musical and fluent.

Many students never get to the final stage because they simply don’t know the notes, or can’t remember the fingering.   Scales can be useful to help understand key signatures and tonality whilst enhancing technical skills but they have to be remembered to benefit anyone.

What can help us teach scales?

A multi-sensory approach

No student is ever the same and a variety approaches can really help students to master scales.

  • Is the student very visual, helped by the patterns on the keyboard?
  • Do they benefit from aural activities like saying the fingering at the same time as playing the patterns?
  • Does ‘walking’ the scale help? Knowing the pattern of tones and semi-tones of major and minor scales can mean a student is able to identify a scale from a given note. Walking the scale with large strides for tones and little steps for semitones (singing the note names at the same time) can in-bed the patterns into the long term memory.

All the above activities are multi-sensory, employing lots of the senses at the same time to aid learning.

Memory Hooks

Memory hooks (associations) help us remember – usually the more obscure, the more memorable.

For years, children have benefitted from mnemonics such as Every Goal Beckham Does Fast (treble clef line notes); Quaver crisps to remember half beat notes and fish and chips for the sharps in the key of D major.  Use memory hooks – the best are the ones that students come up with themselves, or are whacky and memorable.

Break the learning down from the easy to the difficult

Some students benefit from very small steps (include as many as they need).  Work from the easy (what a tone or semitone is) to the more difficult (the order of tones and semi tones to form a scale).

Train the mind as well as the fingers

The tactile memory is not reliable if a mistake is made. The mind needs to help the fingers get back to where they need to be!

The importance of the circle of fifths in scale learning and key knowledge

The circle of fifths (COF) is a great tool to help learn all keys – good even for new AS students.  It also can help scale learning – identifying sharps and flats – whilst providing a practice tool (playing scales in the order they appear in the COF).

Activities for learning scales

Some of these may work well with one student and be ineffective with another.  Be student led.  Find the activities that work for them.

Scale cards – Have laminated coloured cards with all the different note names on without sharps or flats.

  • Get the student to firstly put the letter names in the correct order for a scale.
  • Next step, can they identify any sharps or flats in the scale?
  • Use a whiteboard pen to write the flat/sharp on the card.
  • Ask the student to muddle up the cards and put them in the correct order again, saying the letter names.
  • Finally, request they say the note names out loud in the correct order and even better, ask them to sing them.
  • Do forwards then backwards.
  • Do a similar activity for fingering.
  • Get the student to write the fingering under the note names and sing the fingering.
  • Test the student’s learning – get them to play the scale on the piano.

Scale pictures – I once heard of a student who named the scales by animals.  E flat major was the elephant scale.  One of my own students remembered them by different dinners.  He had pictures with a plate and items on.  B flat major was eggs and beans.

Scale journeys – The two black notes and three black notes can be useful points of reference on a keyboard.

For example:  B major scale for keyboard.  From B the fingers jump (missing out the C) onto a small bridge (the two black notes); they take a small step off the small bridge (onto the E) then jump again (over F) on to a large bridge (three black notes) and take a small step off (onto B).

Fingering charts  – a picture of a keyboard with the finger numbers on is an excellent visual prompt to aid correct fingering.

Using little animals or rubber tops – A number of my colleagues use characters or colour top rubbers to place on the keyboard to mark out the scale patterns.  The student practices this in lessons until they are totally confident with the scale pattern.

Ten other ways to learn scales

  1. Chanting fingering
  2. Focus on fingering patterns
  3. Playing notes in clusters by depressing the group of fingers at the same time
  4. Playing in different rhythms, articulation – staccato, tongued, slurred, stressing different beats.
  5. Singing all the scales, arpeggios or broken chords
  6. Record more difficult sounding scales or arpeggios (melodic minors, dominant and diminished 7ths) on the student’s mobile phone, say the fingering at the same time.
  7. Playing scales with a metronome – slow, steady, fast
  8. Doing scales with your eyes closed so you can focus on the feel and the sound.
  9. Improvising using a scale or arpeggio pattern, teachers can accompany.
  10. Breaking one scale into two halves.

Scales Pot (repetition / over learning)

  • List all the scales and arpeggios to be learnt – have two pots: super scales and starting scales.
  • Transfer scales into the super scale pot when they have been learnt.
  • Play super scales once through and starter scales three times.

The scale pot also prevents students only being able to play scales in a particular order – this does happen!

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is the co-writer of Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond (Harper Collins), and the compiler of the ABRSM Encore series.

She works as a peripatetic and private piano teacher, classroom music teacher, and is a music and dyslexia specialist.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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