So you know you have to practise your scales but you’re not really that keen, and you find your mind is constantly wandering. You need some sort of plan, and you need a definite way of doing things – or you’ll just aimlessly doodle up and down the scale a few times. Let’s assume you’re advanced enough to be playing your scales 4 octaves, and that you now them all well enough to be able to immediately call up a mental image of how the scale looks and feels on the keyboard. If I suggested E major, you need to be able to see in a flash the pattern the four black keys make with the four white ones (counting the key note twice) and to recall its tactile memory and possibly the sound world (or key colour). If you are still struggling with the notes, I would not suggest following this plan.

Practising scales in a variety of different rhythms is a tried and tested method and is not going to be a new concept to any of you. However, when you practise in a rhythm, it is really important to be as precise as possible and to keep the pulse rock steady. If you are playing a dotted rhythm, make sure it really is dotted (and not triplety) by overcompensating and doing it double dotted. When you invert “l-o-n-g/short” to “short/l-o-n-g”, you’ll get much more value out of it if you keep the accent on the first note (i.e. on the “short”) rather than let it happen on the long note (where it will want to go).

I have published a series of rhythm charts (including some syncopated ones) in Part 3 of Practising the Piano. These are useful for self study, but also for teachers to give as a weekly assignment (such as “black-note majors in rhythms 1, 2, and 4; white-note harmonic minors in rhythms 3, 5 and 6”, etc.). Here is a neat formula I like to use, perhaps something a little out of the ordinary. We’re going to play the scale over 4 octaves in six different rhythmical patterns, based on an equal number of long and short notes. Thus the first pattern is two long notes followed by two short ones:

scale 4


Thereafter, invert this so we now have the two short notes followed by the two long ones:

scale 3


Next, we’re going to play four long notes followed by four short ones (followed by its inversion):

scale 1

And lastly, eight long notes followed by eight short ones (and of course the inversion):

scale 2

When doing it this way, think of two different types of touch:

  • long notes = strong and firm (forte tenuto)
  • short notes = softer and lighter (piano leggiero)

Russian Scale

How about ending your practice of the scale with a “Russian” scale?  This scale form comes from the Russian conservatory tradition, and combines elements of similar and contrary motion in one long scale. It is good for concentration, coordination and building stamina and endurance, and we can use it for the majors and harmonic minors. Here is the simplest way to do it:

  • 2 octaves similar motion, ascending
  • 2 octaves contrary motion, out and back
  • 2 octaves similar motion, descending

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