Some years ago I was invited to give a class on scales and arpeggios for a piano teachers’ association. There was one advancing student who was really struggling with them – everything was faulty and she could barely manage to get through. I only had a brief time with her, and I decided not to spend too long trying to correct the technical faults because they were just too numerous. Besides, I knew her teacher had already shown her what needed to be done. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and she said she did. I then invited her to imagine the piano entry in the first movement and, when she was ready, to play a scale of C minor in that style. To everyone’s surprise (including her own), she played the scale flawlessly. Instead of trying to remember what her elbows and her thumbs ought to be doing, she had an artistic goal in mind before she played – a definite mood and character. This is what enabled her to forget about the “how” and instead focus her mind on achieving her musical intention. This is how it is when we play real music; we can’t be thinking about the means in performance. Scales are not music of course, but we can still imbue them with character and imagination.
When playing a scale, rather than simply thinking of the note patterns of that particular scale, have a style or character in mind. Here are some examples useful at a more advanced level (there are loads more you can come up with). Take a moment or two before you play to get in character:
- E major in the style of a Mendelssohn Scherzo
- G major in the style of a Bach Gigue
- G minor in the style of the coda of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 (Go on! See how it sounds if you add a splash of pedal, about the same amount as a dash of Tabasco on your dinner – DON’T do this in an exam, though!)
- B flat minor, lento e mesto
- A major, allegro giocoso
For younger players who won’t have much knowledge of the repertoire, we can use descriptive terms such as:
- Bright and sunny
- Slow and mysterious
- Strong and spiky
- In a marching style
- Gently flowing
Scales can be practised at a variety of speeds, and remember a slow scale does not have to sound dull and mechanical. In an exam situation, I would not suggest doing any of this too obviously, it’s more for the practice room. So what is the best way to play a scale when they are being tested? Because all technical exercises need to be presented with shape and quality of sound, we can think of a gentle crescendo on the way up and a diminuendo on the way down. Group them in 4’s or 8’s but without any discernible accents.
Random Scale Generator
In my new ebook on scales and arpeggios, I decided to include several resources to help teacher and student structure the technical work. Apart from the practice charts, one resource I am particularly proud of is the random scale generator. I have designed one for each ABRSM grade. Here’s how it works:
- Select a grade from the drop down listing
- Click “Generate”
- Play the scale that is generated along with the specified instructions
- Rate yourself between 1 and 5 (“5” being perfect) depending on how you think you did
- Click “Next” for another scale or “Finish” to review your results of the session
This will certainly help motivate and challenge students in their practice room, as it gives them a chance to test themselves and to rate their achievements. In addition to a random scale or arpeggio requirement generated for that grade, we have programmed in other challenges that might or might not appear:
- Touch (legato, staccato, etc.)
- Shape (crescendo to the top, smooth and even, etc.)
- Speed (full, half and quarter speeds – with metronome marks as recommended by the ABRSM for the grade)
- Rhythm (the generator randomly allocates one of several different rhythms or just leaves this part blank)
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If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources:
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