Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

An Arpeggio Practice Plan

If you’re preparing your scales and arpeggios for an exam, or if you want to include some as part of your warm-up routine or technical regime, it is a good idea to be creative about how you’re going to tackle them day by day. Recently, I gave a practice plan for scales so I thought I would also give you a possible way to organise your arpeggio practice. Assuming you already know your arpeggios in all the inversions, and have overcome the basic technical difficulties, use this plan as a springboard for further creative ideas. Arpeggio Bouquet This is a useful process for self-testing, and it also helps develop mental flexibility and concentration. From a given note, generate as many different arpeggios as possible that use that note, and play all on one continuous loop without stops (the last note of each arpeggio becomes the first note of the next). For example, if we choose the note C, our loop will consist of the following different arpeggios (aim to change only one note at a time where possible, this won’t work as neatly as you go through the dominant 7ths). I suggest changing the note each day. Keep an eagle eye on fingerings: C major, root position C minor, root position A flat major, first inversion F minor, second inversion F major, second inversion A minor, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of F, root position Dominant 7th, key of D flat, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of B flat, second inversion Dominant 7th, key of G, third inversion Diminished 7th on C   Be creative with how you do this – you might vary the dynamics between one arpeggio and the next, play some half or […]

Managing Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little. Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons: A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio. The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave. Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice. The Arm Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb!  The Thumb There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all […]

Making Scales Sound and Feel Good

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.   Styles 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 Scale Plan

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 […]

Practising the Piano Part 3 – Scales and Arpeggios

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 piano without scales (or basic theory) would be as nonsensical as learning language without the alphabet or without bothering with grammar. You would get so far, then reach a dead end. Scale work is an ongoing process from the relative beginning stages of piano study through to conservatory level and beyond. The professional pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day! Many of the world’s greatest pianists and teachers wouldn’t think of beginning their daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios (possibly along with other exercises and studies), and they expect their students to do the same. Practising the Piano Part 3 It can be difficult to summon up the necessary enthusiasm to practise scales unless they are presented in ways that are fun, rewarding and challenging. I think there needs to be additional resources available to encourage the student to practise scales in a disciplined and orderly fashion, and a system of logging the work from day to day. Self-testing is also an important […]

By |March 21st, 2014|eBooks|0 Comments

My New eBook on Scales and Arpeggios

I’m 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: Scales index This section provides an index of all major, harmonic and melodic minor scales with key signatures, fingerings and variations for practice.  There is also a keyboard diagram of each scale so the beginner will be able to see the note patterns at a glance. Scales and arpeggios charts Download printable practice charts for ABRSM Grades 1 through to 8 featuring a grid layout with the keys listed vertically and the types of scales horizontally.  Teachers can use these to assign scales for practising in between lessons, and for students to keep a record of what they have practised. Scales and arpeggios generator Don’t you wish there was a way to test yourself on the scales and arpeggios for your grade?  Part 3 includes a scale generator that randomly selects these from the ABRSM syllabus for you.  It will keep you on your toes by requesting additional ways of doing them (different touches and speeds, and so on) and gives you an optional self-scoring mechanism for charting your progress. There are so many different and creative ways to practise your scales (have you ever tried the “Russian” way?).  Practising the Piano Part 3 shows you exactly how to practise […]

By |March 18th, 2014|eBooks|5 Comments

Scale Generator

I am busy writing Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano, a volume on scales and arpeggios. After outlining the basic skills needed, I look at both scales and arpeggios from the point of view of elementary, intermediate and advanced level players. There are lots of demonstrations on the main technical points as well as exercises, suggestions for practice, and ideas to keep scale playing interesting and vibrant. This should be available for purchase very soon. One of the interactive tools we are developing for the publication is a “scales generator” which randomly selects scales to play from a prescribed list.  I am very excited to be able to introduce a demo version of it to you now in advance! At present it is still in the beta testing stage, so we would value your comments and suggestions. Any feedback you have is helpful so we can improve this. At present only ABRSM Grades 1 and 5 are available, but we will be including all the grades from 1 to 8. To test out the generator, please click here. Please leave your comments, suggestions and feedback at the bottom of this page. Thank you in advance!    

By |February 25th, 2014|News|9 Comments

A Beautiful Process for Scales

I was back at Steinway Hall in London recently, recording a new series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. The first is on scales and arpeggios, and now that it has come out I am able add it at the end of this post. In this video, I demonstrate how the wrist, thumb and forearm accommodate the shifts in position in a scale or an arpeggio, using examples from the repertoire. So often I see players drop the arm down onto the thumb, forgetting that the arm needs to glide behind the hand smoothly. Apart from lumps and bumps, this will often cause a derailment. I wish there had been time to demonstrate a beautiful process my friend and colleague, the late and much missed Nehama Patkin used to do with scales for her intermediate students. Fortunately, I can give it to you here. This is useful hands separately as well as together, and it is actually very good to do it with the metronome. This is my take on what Nehama did (she suggested playing the scale as fast as possible as the final part, even if it comes out scrappily): Play the scale one octave ascending and descending, very slowly and firmly with a full, rich tone – let’s say we play each note as a crotchet, MM = 60 (or wherever suits you). Raise each finger slightly before grasping each key firmly, making sure to switch off effort at the bottom of each key. This will be at a level of forte. Next, without stopping, play two octaves in quavers. Keep the same pulse from the one-octave scale (the scale will now be twice as fast). Physically, instead of planting each finger into […]

By |September 27th, 2013|Practising|18 Comments

Eat Your Greens!

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: 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): 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 […]

By |December 14th, 2012|Practising|4 Comments

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