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!