Why Scales are Important
by: Helena Mason
Many piano students question the wisdom of practising scales and arpeggios. Practice sessions begin with what seems to be a frustrating waste of time, a reluctant run through mechanical, repetitive and frankly boring exercises which appear to be designed to stop them getting to the interesting part of practice - the repertoire. However, scales can offer the pianist so much more. Intelligent and focused practice of scales can have an impressive impact on performance, technique and overall musicianship.
The perfect warm-up
Preparation is an essential factor in getting the most from a practice session. Scales can be used to gently loosen and stretch the hands and fingers before playing, and arpeggios are invaluable for warming up the wrists. One tip is to play the scales and arpeggios of the key of the piece you are planning to practise. Not only will this fix the necessary sharps or flats in your mind, it will also provide a quick reminder of the particular hand positions and possible fingerings of the piece. For example, the seemingly large interval between C-flat and D-natural in E-flat minor will be highlighted, practised and resolved before you even attempt to play in that key. Much musical material derives from scales and arpeggios. Melodies are largely drawn from the notes of the scale, while composers frequently use chords and broken chord patterns in their harmonies. By perfecting scales and arpeggios, you are giving yourself advance warning of the challenges that you are likely to find in your chosen pieces.
The repetitive and predictable nature of scales make them the ideal basis for practising and improving technique. With the worry of hitting a wrong note significantly reduced, the pianist is free to experiment. For example, try playing a scale staccato instead of legato, or with a bouncy dotted rhythm instead of steady quavers. Experiment with dynamics, pianissimo to fortissimo, or performing a crescendo or diminuendo. Or choose some performance directions and try them out. Minor scales lend themselves to fierce or melancholy playing, while major scales can easily be played heroically or jokingly. But try swapping them over. Playing a minor scale in a playful, giocoso style is something of a challenge!
Scales are also invaluable for promoting steady, even rhythm. The use of a metronome can help you to develop a reliable inner rhythm, and will highlight any unevenness. For example, many students find that the natural weakness of the fourth and fifth fingers leaves them with less control. Using a metronome at different speeds will help to overcome this problem. However, although a pianist should be able to play with a steady rhythm, they also need to be able to deviate from strict time in a musical way. So try altering speeds within a scale, speeding up or slowing down as you go. Move from an exaggerated lento to prestissimo within a single scale. All of these ideas will increase your agility, help you to achieve a productive practice session and improve your control and command of the piano.
Putting theory into practice.
Another major benefit of scales is the thorough tuition they provide in key signatures. Theory books can supply this information, listing flats and sharps for you to memorise. However, it isn’t until you begin to use this theory in a practical way by actually playing in the keys that you acquire a deep and reliable understanding. And once this level of understanding is achieved, you will notice huge improvements in a fundamental area of musicianship - sight reading. Students often find that somewhere in the confusion of notes, chords and dynamics, and the desperation to keep going no matter what, the black keys can easily be forgotten. But regular scale practice will help to solve this problem. By drilling the theory and practical application of key signatures into both mind and muscles, playing in each key signature will become second nature, leaving you free to concentrate on everything else.
How to practise scales
So how to get the most from practising scales? What approach should be taken to maximise the benefits to both your theoretical understanding and your practical technique? It is well documented that Chopin chose to begin scale tuition with B major. Although this key seems challenging, with a horrifying number of sharps to remember (F#, C#, G#, D# and A#), once attempted on the piano it becomes evidently easy to play. The notes fall naturally under the fingers promoting a good hand shape, and the use of the thumb as a pivot is made easy by its position lower and closer to the pianist than the fingers.
Once you have familiarity with the scales, try working them chromatically whilst alternating between major and minor (following B major with Bb minor for example). This forces the hand to change position and adjust fingering patterns, constantly challenging and testing the knowledge of the pianist. And occasionally, play scales backwards, descending then ascending, or try starting a scale on a random note, testing yourself to see if your fingers can naturally find the right place. The variations are endless, and will both increase your skill and liven up your practice sessions.
So try not to resent playing scales. Rather than being a waste of time, scales will improve every aspect of your piano technique, provide an excellent grounding in theory and can be great fun too. And all in ten minutes a day. Time well spent.
By: Helena Mason