Issue 128: Chunking up piano scales

The first “hands together” piano scales are actually the hardest ones to get to grips with. In fact I still remember being withdrawn from my Grade 2 piano exam, because I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) manage to do the proper fingering for the scales. This made an even bigger impression upon me than it might have done, as the syllabus changed that term, and I had to learn a new set of pieces as well.

Anyway, I’m now trying to teach a reasonably advanced student to play D major, one of the scales for the Trinity grade 6 exam. His experience of learning scales has been zip, zero, and zilch, so I really am starting from scratch. Trinity only requires a couple of keys and a couple of octaves, but played with different dynamics and articulation. I’m more used to teaching ABRSM; every single key, four octaves, all legato.

Anyway, let’s have a look at the fingering for two octaves – this applies to C, G, D, A and E major and minor scales

Right Hand 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5

Left hand    5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1

When I teach the scales hands separately, I get the students to count their fingers as they play;

eg for right hand, up and down, 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1

The problem is when you play hands together; as the thumbs have to be played at different times.

So, here’s one approach; work on small chunks; take the 3rd to 6th notes of the scale, which is fingered

“double 3, 2&1, 1&2, double 3” (if you are playing C major, that would be E F G A) and go up and down just these four notes, at different speeds, in different rhythms until you can do it accurately while reciting “Twinkle twinkle little star”, or reading a couple of sentences from a book at the same time as playing. This might sound mad (and is fairly impossible!) but is a good test of how well the fingering has gone in.

Do the same with the notes either side of the middle tonic, the double thumbs, reciting “to play some more, use your 4”. So, again for C major, it’s the bit that goes B C D in the middle of the scale.

When both these bits are reliable, try connecting them, so you would play the notes E F G A B C D and back, and then from the starting C; C D E F G A B C D and back. STAY AWAY FROM PLAYING THE WHOLE SCALE, please! Don’t risk scrambling this delicate and fragile knowledge by over-exertion at this stage!

Once everything is going well, you can get up to the top – and STOP! Your student will have used all their brain-power to get that far, and will not have the stamina to make it back without totally wrecking everything, and all your hard work will be ruined.

It’s much better to start at the top as a separate exercise, and carefully come down to the bottom, and STOP.

Leave doing the whole scale until every stage is finger perfect. Getting the fingering off by heart, and deep into the bones is the most important thing.

I wish, I wish, I WISH my grade 6 student had the patience to do this preparation work, but he is in too much of a hurry. He had just about got the first stage perfect, and then rushed ahead to play the whole scale, up and down, and within half a dozen notes was doing crazy and chaotic fingering, like scribbling rubbish all over a careful sketch.

I know he is not going to practise his scales like this, and I know that next week we shall be back to stage one. Oh well. Optimism is my middle name.

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