A couple of years ago I suggested to author Karen Marshall and publishers Faber Music that it would be really useful to have an all-in-one scales manual within the popular Piano Trainer series. And here it is!
According to Faber Music,
“This all-in-one workbook for scales, arpeggios and broken chords includes all the keys and basic shapes piano students should learn. With clear scale notation, easy-to-visualise keyboard diagrams and excellent theory activities to consolidate understanding and underline the importance of writing music. It is ideal for developing a bespoke scale curriculum.”
The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook is certainly all of this, and the 72-page book is chock-full of neat ideas and judiciously selected material, so let’s take a closer look…
The Basic Outline
First impressions of this volume reveal a full, busy presentation throughout. It is certainly to Faber Music’s immense credit that their talented designers have given the book a visually clear, attractive presentation that eases a quick assimilation of the material within.
It is also immediately obvious that Marshall’s approach places a heavy emphasis on written music theory: calling this a Workbook is particularly apt, as it is one that will require a sharp pencil and rubber almost as much as a piano!
With that in mind, here’s an overview of the content.
Student scale record and contents: the book starts with a page dominated by a large Circle of Fifths diagram, with areas that can be coloured in to chart student progress. This may look intimidating, but actually offers a cool and novel way of keeping track of progress while simultaneously reinforcing theory knowledge. Time to get the crayons out!
The Piano Trainer Scale Challenge: next comes a double-page assessment grid, which the author stresses “is not based on any examination syllabus”, but rather designed “to make scales an ongoing part of any student’s journey”.
There are four “levels”, each more demanding, and based around the important principle that scales and keys should be assimilated cumulatively rather than in the piecemeal way that exam syllabi tend to assess.
Major/Minor keys: and so, we arrive at the main content of the book!
Each major key is afforded two pages of content (one presenting the scale, arpeggio and broken chord, the other given fully over to written theory activities), while minor scales have three (which again includes a page of written work).
In the manner of a traditional school workbook, each key is prefaced with a box in which the teacher can write the date that the scale, arpeggio or broken chord has been “set”. This is a nifty idea in some respects, but doesn’t include space for hands separate/together, number of octaves, etc, which could prove frustrating over time.
For each key note a standard format is presented:
- Major Scale (two octaves)
- Major Arpeggio (two octaves)
- Major Broken Chord: three-note pattern, one octave+
- Major Key: Activity Page (theory exercises)
- Harmonic Minor Scale (two octaves)
- Minor Arpeggio (two octaves)
- Minor Broken Chord: three-note pattern, one octave+
- Melodic Minor Scale (two octaves)
- Natural Minor Scale (two octaves)
- Scale Coach (text boxes featuring helpful learning and practice tips)
- Minor Key: Activity Page (theory exercises)
Having all of these scales, arpeggios and broken chords so clearly presented in one place is fabulous, and the included keyboard diagrams are a very welcome addition.
That said, I find the order in which scales appear in this book rather frustrating: I would certainly have prefered it to follow the circle of fifths in one direction, as is so neatly illustrated on the student scale record at the start of the book. Importantly too, I think it would have made a lot more sense to follow each major key with its relative minor, rather than the tonic minor, which here results in an illogical order to the minor keys.
Related to this, I would have preferred the Natural Minor scales to be presented prior to the Harmonic and Melodic versions throughout, as they provide the theoretical starting point from which the other forms are then developed, and they solidify an understanding of key signature.
Chromatic scales: a single page next introduces the chromatic scale, giving one octave in contrary motion starting on D, two in similar motion starting on C, and (less expectedly) a chromatic scale with hands a major third apart, starting on C and E. Interesting, and quite a fun challenge!
Contrary-motion scales: these are again given a single page introduction, with examples in E major, A harmonic minor and a “Russian scale” in C major.
Arpeggio and broken chord variations: this page introduces the first and second inversions of arpeggios that typically appear in the advanced piano grades (using D major and B minor as examples), and (finally!) the four-note broken chord pattern (only C major is provided).
This is a useful starting point for introducing the theory concepts involved, but not all of the necessary fingering shapes and patterns are included for practise purposes; at this level, a more comprehensive scale book is perhaps needed.
Diminished and dominant sevenths: for each of these forms, one example is offered, with a diminished seventh pattern starting on B and dominant seventh in the key of C major. Again, without more fingering support this is more useful for introducing the theory concept than it is for teaching students to play them with a healthy piano technique.
“Exotic” scales: this two-page introduction begins with one example each of the major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and minor blues (but oddly not the major blues) scales.
Introducing modal scales, Marshall notes in the text that they can be played using just the white keys, but rather than including the most simple forms for clarity, she instead delivers transposed versions: the Mixolydian on C, Dorian on F, Aeolian on G, Lydian on Ab, Phrygian on B, and no Locrian.
Though the information in this short section is welcome and well presented, it feels rushed, and I suspect that some may find it a little confusing.
Scales in different intervals: the final page of the book introduces (in the key of C major) scales with hands a third and sixth apart, in double thirds, sixths and octaves.
Scales Coach boxes: I suspect that these will prove to be a favourite element of The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook. Dotted around the book, there are 24 Scale Coach boxes offering learning suggestions, teaching ideas, practice tips and creative strategies for practising scales with variety and musical expression.
There’s no doubt that teachers will find this subtly integrated content as useful as it is varied, while students will be drawn in by the author’s characteristically warm and engaging writing style.
Scaling the heights?
The “scales book” market is becoming a crowded one, with publications to suit all tastes and learning approaches, each with its own strengths and appeal.
So where does The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook fit in, and who is it primarily for? Is this the go-to resource that every piano student should have, or will its appeal be more specific?
I think this book will particularly suit:
- Those who want the core piano scales in one handy, economical resource with a long shelf-life.
- Those who don’t use graded exams, or prefer to create distance between scales learning and exam preparation.
- Those who prefer Marshall’s workbook aesthetic and theory-based approach to the emphasis on developing piano technique and musical application that’s the central focus of recent publications by both Paul Harris (Improve Your Scales, revised 2021 edition, Faber Music) and Alan Bullard (Scale Explorer series, 2020, ABRSM).
- Those who have already bought into the Piano Trainer brand.
Personally, I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the Piano Trainer series, but not all of my students share my enthusiasm, consistently enjoy the pieces, or warm to the rather prescriptive approach.
Whether they share my excitement this time remains to be seen, but I have little hesitation in recommending The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook as a worthwhile and very helpful addition to the series.
It is particularly refreshing that with this new book, teachers and players can easily jump in wherever they want to. As the marketing puts it, we really can use The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook to support our own more “bespoke scale curriculum”.
There will probably never be a “perfect” scales book that suits every player, but for its target audience this one in my view does a very fine job.
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