Why teach scales in piano lessons?
Briefly, playing scales:
Builds dexterity, finger independence, flow and technical skills like crossing thumb under and crossing fingers 3 and 4 over thumb and much more.
Reinforces a fundamental understanding of the key when studying repertoire.
Generates a file folder of familiar patterns that will be encountered in repertoire and available for use in improvisation.
How do you teach scale spelling?
Equip students with rules and tools so they can discover how to play any scale on any key. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be showing how I teach major scales with numbered erasers thanks to the ever-clever Susan Paradis. Follow this link so you can get her whole and half step cards shown in the picture below.
First, make sure students can hear and discriminate what is a major scale and what is not. Then ask them to play keys from a C to the next C above and place numbered erasers on each key.
Through this process, students will notice that the C major scale includes half steps between 3 and 4 and 7 and 8.
Explain that major scales must have half steps between scale degrees 3 and 4 and 7 and 8. Require them to memorize the major scale code: 34-78!
Ask them to play keys from a G to a G above.
Ask, did that sound the same? Why not?
After they place numbered erasers on each white key, they’ll notice that there is not a half step between scale degrees 7 and 8.
Ask them to fix it by guiding them to move the 7th eraser up a half step.
Ask them to name the black key. Here’s the important learning moment! All scales are spelled with consecutive letters–A, B, C, D, etc. So, the black key must be called F# because F is the next letter in the alphabet. Spelling from E to Gb to G would be incorrect because F was skipped.
Once students explore scales with these tactile tools and specific rules, any scale can be spelled with confidence and THEN key signatures make sense!!
Below is a super-sized visual of the one above on a floor-sized keyboard with numbered Solo cups. This works great for groups!
How do you teach scale fingering?
I wish I would have heard this secret to fingering long ago! Just recently, I happened to hear Eric Jones, a highly respected teacher in the Denver area, describe how he explains fingering to his students. His strategies hit a home run when I teach scale fingering!
- No thumbs on black keys.
- Every scale has two fingering groups: 123 and 1234.
Discover where those groups are distributed within the topography of a scale and fingering is set!
Eric asks students to “gallop” each pattern up and down the keyboard before connecting them.
- In the key of C Major, play RH fingers 123 on CDE on various CDEs on the keyboard.
- Then do the same with fingers 1234 on FGAB.
- Then gallop the two groups together: CDE FGAB.
- Then play them without galloping and listen for a legato tone.
The whole issue of crossing the thumb under is a NON ISSUE. Students play 1231234 with ease without even realizing the trick of crossing the thumb under. Magical!!
I’ve created a one-page PDF that shows how this fingering works in various keys. And…it’s included in the resource described below!
When should you begin teaching scales?
I begin with 5-finger patterns first, then move on to 8-pitch scales. The process depends on the student and how quickly they grasp concepts and their finger mobility.
When students begin with scales and as they advance through them, I use Bradley Sowash’s Squared Scales method. It helps them play scales rhythmically from day one!
Below is how Andrea West, creator of Key Master and all the 88PK graphic designs, answers that question and how she’s discovered a way to make scale playing mindful where simultaneous learning takes place!
This question comes up a lot in different forums, and the answers are typically varied. I teach my students early, and I must admit, I’ve been inordinately proud of how well they play them. They travel around the Circle of 5ths confidently, while chatting about their day at school, never missing
a note or using a wrong finger; rather like I drive to the grocery store, completely on autopilot.
How do I encourage mindful practice of scales?
What I didn’t realize, is that when I take them out of their routine and ask them to play a random scale out of sequence, they absolutely crash and burn. Well, so much for my over-inflated view of my students’ skills!
Apparently, it’s time to scale up my efforts to reach the level of understanding and fluency I thought they had. To do that, I decided to scale it down.
I realized that I needed a different balance. If I reduced the number of scales they were playing, and added more variety on how they were played, they would have to turn off the auto pilot and think about what they were doing.
We started playing Key Master, and it was a real eye opener for me and the students.
They randomly choose a key signature from the deck, and then pick anywhere from 1-4
tasks. They love the idea of only playing in one key (and of course gloat if they pull C out of the deck.)
The specific tasks make them really think about how they’re playing them. Even in C, they are surprised by the mistakes they make because their attention is focused elsewhere.
The best part is, they are having so much fun!
They’re asking to play Key Master, and I can see they like the challenge and variety the game gives them. I like seeing them focusing on rhythms, technique, and dynamics, as well as the right notes and fingering!
Get Key Master ON SALE here
Bundled with your purchase is a PDF of how to teach scale fingering as described above.