Issue 10: Teaching Piano Scales

I have a rule.  I don’t have many rules, as I’m not much good at sticking to them.  Anyway, here it is:

“You can’t start your ‘Grade 2’ until you can play C major scale, two octaves, hands together, with perfect fingering every time.”

There.  In Print.  Set in Stone.

The reason is this; my first piano teacher only ever taught me one octave, contrary motion scales; actually, come to think of it, that is about all she taught me.  She was of the old school (and always wore a hat).

“It goes like this” she would say, and demonstrate it on the piano. I would watch and listen, and attempt to reproduce what I thought I had seen and heard.

“No, no” (bash on the knuckles) “Like this”. She would do it again, I would watch, and try again.

The result was that I developed a quick and accurate aural memory, but after three or four years could still barely read music, was still pre-grade 1, and was unlikely to progress much further.

Fortunately, my parents found another teacher who, with determination, insight, force of personality and a perseverance that I admire, and am permanently grateful for, re-taught me to play properly.  It wasn’t an easy ride for either of us.  Along the way, I was withdrawn from my Grade 2 exam because I couldn’t play my scales – a mixture of not understanding the fingering, refusing to grapple with the fingering, stubbornness, hatred of scales – you name it, I felt it!   As the syllabus was changing, I had to learn three new pieces as well as the scales before I was ready for Grade 2.  In the long term, it was a good call by my teacher and my parents.  In the short term I was really fed up.

So, here’s my system for the scales with standard fingering.  I reckon to spend a good few weeks, maybe a whole term, just to get the fingering understood and stabilised.

Step 1: one octave hands separately, up-and-down, down-and-up.

Step 2: two octaves hands separately, up-and-down, down-and-up. Stress the fact that the second octave is really just the first octave over again, once you have dealt with the bit in the middle where you finish the first octave and start the second.

Step 3: IN SLOW MOTION, one octave, up, hands together. Don’t go any faster until you can always get it right.

Step 4: IN SLOW MOTION, one octave, down, hands together.

Step 5: IN SLOW MOTION, one octave, up only, hands together, ending with “double thumbs”, ready to continue.

Step 6: IN SLOW MOTION, one octave, up only, hands together, ending with double thumbs, pause to sort your fingers out, and then continue to the top. Work towards managing this with a steady pulse, so that you can continue to the second octave without the pause.

Step 7: Two octaves, up, hands together, and one octave down, ending with double thumbs. Keep reminding the student that “the second octave is a repeat of the first, once you have dealt with the bit in the middle”

Step 8: Two octaves, up and down. Result!

You can follow these steps in several keys; the aim is for the student to reach a complete physical and mental understanding of the fingering patterns. The bit that gives the most problem is the left hand fourth finger on the way down; the students are inclined to miss it out and play their thumb too early as they approach the midpoint. I always count the left hand fingers down from the top as they play; singing out loud “1 2 3 1 2 3 4 thumbs-four-over 2 3 1 2 3 4 5″.

Don’t, don’t, don’t ever hurry this process if there is the least sign of confusion.  Stress and panic and other negativities can so easily become embedded into the whole effort of playing scales.  It is too easy to dismiss scales as a “necessary evil”; actually, they are just “necessary” and there needn’t be anything evil about them!

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