Being Creative with Scales – Practising the Piano

Does scale playing scare you? Does the thought of practising scales for an exam intimidate you? Scales have a reputation for being among the least interesting activities we pianists face, but there is no reason scale practice should be dry and boring.

Last week we launched a new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. The module includes detailed instructions on how to play and how to practise scales and arpeggios. You will find short videos, along with exercises and their demonstrations to assist you on your journey.

Once we’ve learned all our scales and arpeggios and no longer need them for any exams, it’s up to us whether we continue to practise them or not. Some professional pianists of the highest calibre go through their scales daily as part of their warm-up routine, others see no value whatever in doing this.

Readers of this blog will know that I rather like to use scales as vehicles for other things. For example, if you are struggling with a two against three polyrhythm in a piece, before you grapple with the passage itself practise first a scale in this polyrhythm (one hand will play three octaves, the other hand two). For good measure, switch this around too. The point here is that you already know your scales, so you will not have to read any notes or think about fingering. You will be able to look at the keyboard and focus on the particular difficulty you are trying to master. The first Arabesque of Debussy is a good example:

We might also use scales to explore touch and articulation. A very good example of this came up in a recent lesson. My student was about to learn a Scarlatti sonata, the one in A major, K. 209 (L. 428), and wanted a bit of advice about touch, dynamics and articulation before she embarked on the note learning. Since there are no indications for any of this in the score, we needed to make a few decisions on what might work.

We discovered that the quavers (8th notes) in the opening (and parallel spots) sounded best at a dynamic level of mf – f, using a non-legato touch generated either by forearm bounces very close to the keys or active finger tips.

In the 5th bar, the RH introduces a new rhythmic figure – long-short. How might we play this? We could play it slurred, so that the crotchet (quarter note) connects to the quaver (8th note), and then play the quaver short to match the LH. Or we could make a separation between the long note and the short note. To make both these touches as specific as possible in the context of the piece as you are learning the notes can be challenging. If you have first applied them to a scale, you have already experienced the way each articulation sounds and feels and you’re in a better place to apply them to the piece. Try one way then the other until you find the solution that works for you.

What about the semiquaver (16th note) groups? At the allegro tempo, a non-legato touch surely works best. You might play them leggiero, a light finger articulation that feels like a delicate scratching of the finger tips on the key surfaces, or with a more vigorous brioso touch. Again, practising a scale using whichever touch feels right at the tempo and dynamic level you are aiming at is excellent preliminary practice. Try and make the scale fit the context as much as possible – hands separately, one or two octaves is fine.


Elementary Technique – Fundamentals of Scales & Arpeggios is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the module index if you are already a subscriber. Be sure to sign-up to our newsletter for further updates and subscribe to our YouTube channel for previews and video excerpts!


Creative Ways to Practise Scales

A thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is essential for all musicians, and yet practising them is often associated with boredom and drudgery. How do we motivate ourselves or our students to practise them, and do we need to keep practising them once we’ve learned them and been through the exam system? Once mastered, we might continue to practise our scales as part of the daily warm-up (many concert pianists do this, but many don’t) or use them use them as vehicles for learning other skills.

Why are scales and arpeggios important?

In addition to being the only technical components in many examinations, fluency with scales and arpeggios is important for several reasons: 

  • Basic musical literacy (developing familiarity with all keys)
  • Keyboard geography, and a tactile as well as aural and theoretical understanding of all keys
  • As the basis for developing other pianistic skills
circle of fifths for practising scales

How to make scale practice engaging

Mindless practising is not only boring but also very inefficient, but fortunately there are many imaginative ways to bring scale practice to life. By adding variety and creativity to your practising, you will get much better results as you enjoy the process. The following are some ideas:

  • Practise with a variety of different rhythms, using accents and groupings (click here for more information on a recent workshop on using rhythms and accents)
  • Organise scales and arpeggios into groups so that practice doesn’t feel overwhelming. By mixing it up you can avoid practising the same scales in the same order each day, and you’ll be able to cycle through them all over the course of several days. A random generator is a helpful way of testing yourself out (see resources below for a tool), and using the Circle of Fifths can also help you come up with different sequences.
  • Playing with a range of different dynamics, including crescendo-dimuendo effects helps to make scales and arpeggios more meaningful and engaging.
  • Explore different touches and articulations. It’s particularly effective when you ask one hand to do something different from the other!
  • Playing one hand twice as fast as the other is a very good test of coordination and concentration. Try a scale using a two-against-three cross rhythm if you want a challenge!
  • Try using the Russian scale form which contains elements of similar and contrary motion and is an excellent way to add value to scale practice (click here to view a video demonstration).
Generator app for scales and arpeggios

Tools and resources

Given the importance of scales and arpeggios, I have developed numerous resources and tools to help making practising them more interesting and productive, in addition to giving advice on solving the technical challenges they present. The following is a listing which you might find useful: 

There are many further resources on scales, arpeggios and related topics in the Online Academy’s scales & arpeggios section. Click here to view an index of available resources.

Bringing Scales & Arpeggios to Life

On Saturday 15th May @ 14:00 – 15:30 BST (GMT +1) Graham Fitch presented an online workshop exploring creative ways to bring practising scales and arpeggios to life. In this interactive workshop, Graham showed how to solve the technical problems and how to use them as vehicles for learning other skills. 

Included in the ticket price is access to the workshop recording, presentations and worksheets. Access to the following Online Academy resources are also included:

Click here for more information or to purchase access to the recording and resources!