Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys.
It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger)
If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them – there is nowhere else for it to go!
While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using a combination of rote and playing by ear, observing the patterns so that the mind is involved too. I suggest learning B, D flat and G flat major scales before any others to establish the finger patterns.
I am a great believer in including music theory into piano lessons, bringing it out from their pieces and scales and always relating it to the sounds and musical meaning. Teaching theory as a totally separate subject risks making it dry, boring and irrelevant. Let’s take the Circle of Fifths as an example of this. Rather than take up any more space than is necessary, for those of you who wish to know more about the history and theory of the Circle of Fifths – click here:
The Circle of Fifths and the Scale-Chord
Here is a neat way of experiencing the Circle of Fifths at the piano. It is a practical keyboard theory lesson. We can go through the circle one key at a time, clockwise in the sharp direction or anti-clockwise in the flat direction. By playing the scale as a chord (all eight notes together), we see its topography with a bird’s-eye view. The scale-chord is an excellent way of seeing the pattern of black and white keys as a whole, and it ingrains this in the memory.
We are going to use only the four fingers in each hand – so no thumbs. Beginning with C major, lay the four fingers of the LH on the first tetrachord (CDEF) and the four fingers of the RH on the second tetrachord (GABC):
To go in the sharp direction:
- Remove the LH tetrachord and let it take over the notes of the RH tetrachord.
- Add a new tetrachord in the RH above, raising the RH 4th finger a semitone (thus, instead of F natural, we play F sharp). We now have the scale-chord of G major:
- Retaining all previous black notes, repeat the process. Thus we keep the F sharp from the previous scale as the LH takes over the RH position. The new sharp will be under the RH 4th finger as before (C sharp). We now have the scale-chord of D major.
- Keep going until you reach the key with the most sharps (for practical purposes probably C sharp major).
* Note that the new sharp might not always be a black key – in F sharp major we will play an E sharp, and in C sharp major we will play a B sharp
To go in the flat direction:
- Return to C major, and this time remove the RH and let it take over the notes of the tetrachord being held by the LH.
- Add a new tetrachord in the LH below, flattening the LH 2nd finger. We now have the scale-chord of F major:
- Retaining all previous black notes, repeat the process. Thus we keep the B flat (top and of course also the bottom note) from the previous scale, and the new flat will be under the 2nd finger as before (E flat). We now have the scale-chord of B flat major.
- Keep going until you reach the key with the most flats (for practical purposes probably G flat major).
* Note that the new flat might not always be a black key – in G flat major we will play a C flat.
A Word on Hand Position
In the scale-chord, the thumbs are dangling over the edge of the keyboard and this will give us a much flatter hand position than we need for scale playing itself. There is an aversion to a flat-fingered position, but remember that we do indeed use this at the more advanced level when we want to think of the finger as an extension of the arm, such as in legato cantabile playing. Our default position needs to be where the fingers are naturally curved. Swing your arm loosely by your side, lift it up to the keyboard and this will be perfect! Avoid a curled position, where the fingers are unnaturally bent – this will be tense. And avoid a flat position because it will seriously impede speed, dexterity and the passing under of the thumb. In a scale as in all piano playing, it is most important that the fingers that are not playing rest on the surface of the keyboard and do not lift up into the air or retract into the palm of the hand. (I have given a thorough solution to this pervasive problem in my eBook series Practising the Piano, Part 2.)
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I am delighted to announce the launch of Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano. Part 3 is a single, bumper volume on scales and arpeggios starting with a guide to the basic skills required followed by chapters for the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.
As with my other eBooks, Part 3 features numerous video demonstrations, exercises written out in manuscript and practice suggestions. It also features a number of resources and interactive tools to keep you motivated and to make your practising more effective.
Preview or buy Practising the Piano Part 3
Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.
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