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Since the ABRSM exam board significantly reduced their piano scales requirements last year (read a full analysis here), many have agreed that their requirements alone no longer provide the solid framework players need for the development of technique, an awareness of keys and assimilation of archetype fingering patterns.
Of the respected educators who have subsequently sought to fill the void with superior learning resources, I have already covered Catherine McMillan’s gorgeously presented Piano Scales Mnemonics (reviewed here) and Karen Marshall superb Piano Trainer Scales Workbook (reviewed here).
Joining these excellent resources, Paul Harris has now completely rewritten his popular Improve Your Scales! series, and like McMillan and Marshall has eschewed the ill-conceived limitations of ABRSM to embrace a more comprehensive and educative approach.
As Harris announces a the start of each of the six books in his new series, which cover the Initial to Grade Five requirements for all major exam boards,
“Scales, arpeggios and broken chords are important. And if taught and learned imaginatively, they can be fun!”
This is another of those moments where a disclaimer is required; Paul invited my feedback on his ideas while developing his vision for the new series, and as a good friend welcomed my help with the proof reading.
The genius in these books is all his though, so let’s see how he’s done things differently from others, and establish why these books stand out as another teaching studio essential…
A Framework for Success
Whenever considering the usefulness of scales workbooks we first need to remind ourselves why scales themselves are not only worth learning, but important. For that, I refer you to these previous articles:
• LEARNING TO PLAY WITH PRECISION
Given the importance of developing a cumulative awareness and fluency with the patterns that form the bedrock of so much piano music, it’s useful to have resources at our disposal which offer a thorough approach.
Harris’s series does that, and more!
Each of the books is divided into sections covering the major and minor keys (and other requirements) that appear in one of more of the exam board specifications for the grade. He tells us at the start of each book,
“This book contains scale preparation in a selection of keys that support multiple exam boards including the ABRSM, Trinity College, LCM and MTB. Tick the keys you need to learn for your exam below.”
Thus in Improve Your Scales! Grade 1, we find a section covering B major (included by the MTB exam board at this level, and favoured by many pedagogues as a physiologically comfortable starting point), even though other boards don’t include it.
In fact, the Grade 1 book includes all of the following keys, from which teachers can select those which they wish to focus on, or need for a specific assessment:
- C major
- G major
- D major
- B major
- F major
- A minor
- E minor
- D minor
- C major contrary motion
- D chromatic contrary motion
In a similar way, B flat major appears in Improve Your Scales! Grade 2 (and is needed for some excellent pieces at Grade 2 level) even though exam boards vary in their requirements: Trinity College and RSL require the scale hands together at Grade 2, LCM and MTB at Grade 3, ABRSM (believe it or not) not until Grade 4.
Essentially, and used properly, these books could thus be used to provide a far more integrated approach to simultaneously learning scales, pieces, sight-reading, music theory, and meeting the other requirements of the various exam syllabi.
So what’s included for each key?
Harris’s inclusive approach is commendable both for its breadth and flexibility of approach, and I think this makes the series a real winner. Not only so, but the range of activities and helpful material included in the books is superb.
In his introduction Harris explains,
“Improve your scales! is designed to help you approach scale learning methodically and thoughtfully. Its intention is to turn learning scales into a pleasant, positive and relevant experience by gradually building up the skills to play them through cumulative and enjoyable activities.”
So what are those activities? The following are common chapter ingredients across the series:
• Music Theory activity: colour in or add finger numbers to a piano keyboard image, and write out the key signature for each clef. In later grades, Harris asks the student to identify the relative major/minor key.
• Finger Fitness: embryonic scale patterns to repeat, assimilating hand positions, finger patters, etc. In the first two books, additional exercises with fun titles are included here too.
• Key Piece: a central element is a short piece in the key, which could be learnt as a “Piece a Week” style quick study between lessons. These are fun and imaginative, with plenty of expressive detail included. And Harris’s famed humour and penchant for alliteration is much in evidence in the titles!
• “Have a Go!”…. at composing a piece in the key. Harris provides a seed from which the player is encouraged to try improvising or composing a short snippet (or longer piece) of music in the key.
• Sight-reading: each of the chapters finishes with a short piece of sight-reading material based on the scale/key, including questions to stimulate thought and musical understanding.
Harris then announces:
“You are now ready to say the notes, hear the scale or arpeggio in your head (playing the keynote first), think about the fingering and then finally play the scale or arpeggio with confidence!”
The careful preparation of material in these books, building on the superb underlying educational thinking, is exemplary throughout. And it is further enhanced by the following elements which appear in each book:
Why are scales important? Each book includes a brief reminder of WHY we are teaching and learning scales.
A Scale a Day! Harris includes a page offering creative suggestions for HOW to practise scales, using different rhythms, articulations, dynamics and so on. He even offers different characters to express through scales, three for each day of the week!
Scale patterns made easy! Harris includes a section in each book outlining the different fingering patterns which appear within, and noting the similarities and differences of each, grouping scales according to pattern. Strong kinaesthetic learners will find this especially helpful.
The Complete Scales for the grade. These appear at the rear of each book, each accompanied by boxes so that teacher or player can tick the ones they can play, or those that will be needed for an upcoming exam.
It’s worth noting that in the Grade 5 book, every major and minor key is included here (even though sadly none of the exam boards test this acquired knowledge any longer). This gives added value to the book, and in my view a healthy sense of completion and attainment.
Faber Music are to be commended (as ever) for their excellent design of the books (credited to Elizabeth Ogden and Sue Clarke), which brings these important elements together in an attractive package.
I sometimes wonder whether resources of this kind are ultimately overkill, but in this instance I feel that Improve Your Scales! is a superbly practical and useful set of books.
While my students generally don’t take all of these graded exams (if indeed any) the books provide a logical and coherently progressive structure for learning scales more effectively than ever, so I can see myself recommending them in preference to the more minimalist alternatives I have previously preferred.
And even where students don’t get their own copy of each workbook, here in the teaching studio they will provide useful backup material to help consolidate scales learning, not least because they offer up some really useful supporting exercises that can be dropped into a lesson as needed.
Indeed, for some students, using McMillan or Marshall’s books for home practice, coupled with Harris’s in lessons for additional material, could prove to be just the right balance.
Either way then, whether as core practising material or for lesson activities, this series is another feather in Harris’s cap. For anyone wanting a thorough scales grounding, the Improve Your Scales! series is surely a top choice.
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