It seems to me that a thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is an absolute necessity for all serious students of the piano. Western music is built on the major/minor tonal system, and to attempt to study the instrument without scales (or basic theory) would be as nonsensical as learning language without the alphabet or bothering with basic grammar. Of course scale playing serves a technical end, but I don’t think we can consider scales as mere warm-ups when the pinky gets used only once per scale, or in some cases not at all.

I will often use scales as a vehicle for teaching something else. It might be to develop touches (one hand plays using one particular touch, and the other hand with another) or to abstract an issue from the complexities of the piece. Just yesterday, a student who brought along Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune was struggling to feel the changes from the default triplet subdivisions of the main beat to the duplet ones. We used the scale of D flat major to help him feel the changes from “tri-po-let” to “du-plet”, with both hands playing in unison, and also with the LH playing in dotted crotchets:

triplet:duplet scale

Practising scales two against three is also a great way to develop this necessary skill (when the LH plays in 3s, remember to start two octaves apart, to avoid the inevitable collision):

scale 2v3

If scales are the ABC of music, what about aural, sight reading and theory? All examination boards include tests in each of these areas for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and – not least – to memorise..

Unless you appreciate how secondary dominants function, or how diminished sevenths resolve, you will miss a vital dimension in your appreciation of music. And it is not really possible to play this passage from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in F, op. 10 no. 2 with any humour or relish unless you understand he is fooling us by appearing to start the recapitulation in the wrong key. Instead of the obligatory tonic, he has somehow wound up in D:

Beethoven op. 10 no. 2

Theory, analysis and aural training are often presented in ways that seem irrelevant to the average learner, and having to spend time on these activities could feel annoying. A lot of theory methods seem to present the subject as a branch of mathematics, a dry-as-dust abstract approach where the ear is never involved and you’re only learning the material so you can get through the exam.

Recently, I was sent a publication for review from the USA, entitled Explorations In Music (UK readers might prefer to view it here) by Joanne Haroutounian. What I like about this series of seven books (each with a CD and optional teacher’s guide) is that it is for students of any age or instrument and approaches the subject holistically and creatively. The ear and the mind are always connected, and composition is encouraged. The series is described by the publisher as a comprehensive music theory curriculum that extends from primary to advanced levels and uses ear training, analysis, and composition to “creatively” teach concepts of music theory. Students explore and discover new concepts, and creative experimentation encourages students to compose. Listening examples are interwoven throughout the book and presented in the CD recording, and “explore” sections allow students to analyse the musical score with eye and ear and work creatively with musical ideas. I like the series very much, and can see its usefulness as a structured curriculum as part of instrumental study. Having the CDs means the student can do a lot by themselves, and the material is presented in such a way that is accessible to adults as well as children. It would also be a useful resource for adult restarters who need to beef up their theory and aural skills – perhaps by joining the series from book 4 or 5.

I have heard very good things about Anna Butterworth’s Harmony In Practice, but have not actually seen a copy. Does anyone have a favourite book? My feeling is that every piano lesson should be a music lesson, and looking at music from a composer’s eye view has to be the way to go.