PracticePrompt Blog

Scaling New Heights

Posted in Deliberate Practice by elwynrees on May 3, 2010

A new goal – I decided I must complete learning all the core scales in the major and minor keys.   For some reason, I always seem to have found an excuse to avoid this…..

“Why learn scales when all I want to do is play  music?”   This is one point of view, often stated on the Piano World forums, but how valid is it? 

In his book “The Art of Practice“, Howard Snell states that:

“…The daily practice of scales and arpeggios offers the fastest route to competence on any musical instrument…”.

Furthermore that:

“…the best players are always good at scales and arpeggios..”. 

He debates whether they are good players because of scales and arpeggios or whether they are good at scales and arpeggios because they are good.   However, he goes on to state that:

“…for the moderate player, scales and arpeggios offer the best practical hope of steady and encouraging  improvement…”.

Personally, I feel that some aspects of my playing during the last year have not improved or have even regressed.  The primary reason I believe, is that at about this time last year, I stopped systematically practicing and learning scales.   During the period Jan to April 2009 I’d been working my way through the minor scales both melodic and harmonic.  I had never studied these when having piano lessons many, many moons ago.  I’d also started playing through the ABRSM grade one jazz scales (which I’d like to carry on with at some point soon).   I think practicing scales helps “oil the wheels” of the pianistic machine and also improves dexterity and musical stamina. 

Currently I’ve been spending  just 5 minutes or so on scale and scale like practice, primarily as part of a warm up and usually going through just one or two major keys….  It needs a more systematic approach and in addition, the time is not adequate to achieve any real improvement and so could be interpreted as just “wasted time”. 

As there are 24 major and minor scales, I thought I  would work on 4 a day for  six days a week.   From previous experience 4 minutes or so is a good good starting point, giving a 16 minute study slot in total.

 So here are the six daily tasks (with numbers of key signature sharps and flats shown in brackets):

Scales 1 – Cmaj, Amin, (0), Gmaj, Emin, (1#)
Scales 2 – Dmaj, Bmin, (2#), Amaj, F#min, (3#)
Scales 3 – Emaj, C#min, (4#), Bmaj, G#min, (5#)
Scales 4 – Gb/F#maj, Eb/D#min,(6#), Dbmaj, Bbmin, (5b)
Scales 5 – Abmaj, Fmin, (4b), Ebmaj, Cmin, (3b)
Scales 6 – Bbmaj, Gmin, (2b), Fmaj, Dmin, (1b)

The tasks progress clockwise around the circle of fifths in pairs, doing first the major then its relative minor. 

With the scales I know, in addition to HS and HT over 2 octaves, I’m also going to be doing some work over 3 octaves.  I’m also varying things a bit such  as starting at the higest note and going down 2 octave, then up then back down.  This is to help my LH descending runs that are weak. 

I found a useful pattern over 2 octaves which incoporates some contrary motion playing:

The LH goes straight up and down 2 octaves several times.  However, the RH has more variety.  Going through it step-wise from the beginning:

RH & LH – up two octaves (parallel motion)

RH&LH  – down 1 octave (parallel motion)

RH – backup 1 octave (contrary motion to LH which continues down)

RH – down 1 octave (contrary motion to LH which is now going up)

RH – up 1 octave (parellel motion to LH which is going up)

RH & LH down 2 octaves (parallel motion)

The aims of this are to introduce some elements of contrary motion and so aid hand independence in addition to  the core 2 & 3 octave parallel runs.

As I’m much weaker with the minors, to just gain fluency in the notes over two octaves is  the  primary goal.   The 4 minute study slot being split between the melodic and harmonic minor scales.

In the ABRSM system, completing all the scales over two octaves is a landmark, which I believe occurs at Grade 5 (out of 8).    Whilst I know that there are a large number of other scales (and modes) out there, these seem to be the key basic core and once learnt a key checkbox to tick off.

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