“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”
Anthony Williams, The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber, 2017, p.31)
Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …
In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:
- What are the benefit of learning scales?
- Is it important to use consistent fingering?
- What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
- How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?
Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…
The benefit of learning scales
“There are certain indisputable foundation skills that support the progress and musical development of the instrumentalist. Their value is incontrovertible and they formed part of the education of every great pianist from C.P.E. Bach to Daniil Trifonov …”
Anthony Williams, ibid (p.31)
As Williams goes on to explain, scales are one of these “indisputable foundation skills” – and I agree with him wholeheartedly – so let’s unpack the reasons why this is true.
The majority of players and teachers agree that the following benefits can and must be gained from practising and learning scales:
- Scales improve all aspects of physical technique, not only finger independence and dexterity, and provide the perfect context for developing evenness of touch, balance and tone;
- Scales instil effective archetype fingering patterns for each and every major, minor, modal, blues and jazz key;
- Scales help us develop a sense of key, harmony, a practical understanding of music theory, and the facility to transpose music;
- Scale and chord patterns appear throughout keyboard music in all genres, so familiarity with them considerably speeds up the learning of repertoire;
- Scales likewise improve our ability to play new music at sight, making music aurally, physically and visually more predictable;
- Scales also enhance our harmonic and structural understanding, for example our awareness of modulation;
- Scales are the foundation for improvisation and composing.
With deeper, cumulative learning, scales can become and embedded language which facilitates the fluency of all our playing. Further, they provide a laboratory in which other techniques and aspects of musicianship can be learnt and developed, as we shall see later in this article.
As Paul Harris and Richard Crozier write in their essential book The Music Teacher’s Companion (ABRSM, 2000, page 53):
“Technique is an umbrella term comprising many areas of study; but in identifying all the component parts, it will be found that almost all of them can be dealt with by the study of scales and their related patterns.”
They go on to say,
“The prepared teacher will be ready to counter-attack the favourite moan of so many young players: ‘Why do I have to learn scales?’. It is important to spend time explaining and then constantly reminding your pupils of the reasons. They will eventually begin to see the huge benefits to be gained from regular and methodical scale study and, with some imaginative and relevant teaching strategies, they may even begin to enjoy their scale practice!”
P. Harris and R. Crozier, ibid.
Consistency and fingering
As a teacher, I regularly take on transfer students who have not previously learnt to play scales in a consistent, cumulative manner. Any scales work they have done has been shallow, exam focused, and fundamentally ineffective.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the application of consistent fingering. And, tellingly, in many cases these same students also need particular help working out fingering patterns in the pieces that they are playing. Often their sheet music is peppered with the fingerings written in by previous teachers, compensating for the student’s weak knowledge of effective fingering patterns.
This is not to say that there is only one “correct” way to finger scales, or indeed the passages we encounter in repertoire. On the contrary, there can be many effective alternatives.
The key here is to learn consistency, and so to develop a strong foundation of effective archetype fingering patterns, becoming fluent in utilising and adapting this deep “finger knowledge” when improvising or tackling repertoire.
Let me share with you this interesting quote from Ruth Gerald, who was the Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal College of Music. In her introduction to The Manual of Scales, Broken Chords and Arpeggios for Piano (ABRSM, 2001) she notes:
”When practising scales, broken chords and arpeggios, it is important that players use fingering patterns consistently and understand the fundamental principles behind their choice, which they can then apply when fingering pieces or sight-reading.”
How very sensible!
The requirements of an exam syllabus perhaps represent the biggest barrier to effective, purposeful scales learning.
Too often over the last 25 years I have taken on transfer students who have previously only been taught a limited selection of scales in the run-up to the graded exam. Between one grade and the next, they had forgotten most of the scales previously learnt, their teachers complicit in allowing this to happen.
Reaching towards Grade 5, at which point the scales in every major and minor key are required, they found that they faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of re-learning all the scales previously mastered, but now forgotten.
This sad situation is perhaps exacerbated by the mistaken view that scales are dull, but as we shall see, they need not be so if taught creatively.
Again, it is mistaken to suggest that there are dozens of scales to be learnt when preparing for Grade 5. The truth is there actually only four new keys at Grade 5 if using the current ABRSM syllabus (F# major, F#, Eb and Bb minors).
That’s right – just four new keys – which is hardly an onerous task!
But a perfectly reasonable assumption is made that Grade 5 candidates have properly learnt the easier scales from earlier grades; where this proves not to be the case, there can be a rude awakening!
There are of course additional requirements appropriate to the Grade – in this case, the range stretches to three octaves, and at a slightly more fluent tempo. There are a handful of contrary motion scales added, too.
But this rise in demand is merely the natural and logical extension of facility that can be expected of a student who has been deeply and cumulatively learning these scales over the previous years.
Scales and Creativity
How, then, does this deeper, cumulative learning happen?
In short, deeper learning involves fully engaging with, living with, internalising and memorising scales. It involves making connections between scales and other aspects of musical learning – crucially, deeper learning must engage all three treasures of musical learning: musical essence, technique and understanding.
- Scales must be understood aurally, not merely learnt by rote. Explore scales and keys without notation, at least sometimes.
- Scales can be used for creative experimentation. Explore different ways of playing scales – varying the dynamics, articulation, tempo and mood.
- Try playing scales in swing and other rhythmic patterns.
- Use scales as the basis for improvising and composing both in and between lessons.
- Use scales to address the technical issues met in other music.
- For example, try varying the dynamics or articulation between hands, using this to reinforce the concept of voicing and develop the ability to bring out the melody in a piece.
- Scales provide an ideal context for learning to connect with our breathing at the piano. Find out more.
- Rather than superficially learning scale patterns, divorced from any musical context, notice where similar patterns appear in repertoire, and how they are altered to fit the needs of pieces.
- Apply fingering principles absorbed from playing scales and arpeggios when learning new pieces, using them as a basis for working out effective fingering independently.
- Notice when and how pieces change key, and the role that scales and arpeggios play.
- Develop knowledge of the circle of fifths; this not only reinforces theory knowledge, but also enhances creativity when improvising and composing.
These are a few small ideas, and the creative teacher will be able to add innumerable teaching and learning strategies to the list.
Teachers will very often agree that graded exams shouldn’t be the sole focus of a student’s musical development, so it is odd that when it comes to scales, so many limit learning to syllabus content as they do, ignoring the powerful role that learning scales deeply and cumulatively can have.
Taken together, the ideas in this article all point to a wonderful outcome: scales learning can become connected to, and tremendously strengthen, all the other aspects of musical learning.
In covering these topics, I hope that I’ve not only offered just a few practical answers to the basic questions that so often arise when the topic of scales comes up, but also helped the reader understand and finally agree with Anthony Williams’ conclusion that,
“[Scales]… are the musical and physical grammar of tonal piano music, the quickest way of developing an awareness of melody, harmony and structure and the very best shortcut to fluent playing. Above all they are the ingredients for the most special moments of beauty, passion and lyricism in some of the greatest music ever written.”
Anthony Williams, ibid, (p.31)
Part Two: Learning to Play with Precision
Bechstein piano: Frances Wilson. Photograph James Eppy, used with permission and thanks.