Flying High on Scales

Flying High on Scales

Most students would probably agree that practising scales and arpeggios hardly rates as a major “fun” activity. All too often an inertia in this area of work results in a rushed and anxious cramming period for the student, just before the exams. Whereas we, as teachers, might consider the importance of scales and arpeggios as almost self-evident, we nevertheless do need to periodically remind ourselves of the critical role that scales and arpeggios play in securing a firm and reliable technique. We need to do this if we want to be convincing in our teaching and if we want to affect a permanent attitude change in our own students.

So why not use a touch of marketing strategy in our campaign? After all, endorsements for the product abound, and from some very big names in the field…

Wilhelm Backhaus was an international artist of immense accomplishment. He was one of the great Beethoven exponents of his generation, and could roll off any of the Chopin etudes or the Brahms–Paganini variations at any time with an absolute and unshakable security. His technical mastery invariably left audiences open-mouthed. In answer to the question of his remarkable command of the keyboard and his practice regime for the concert stage, Backhaus said:

“Personally I practise scales in preference to all other forms of technical exercises when I am preparing for a concert. Add to this arpeggios and Bach, and you have the basis upon which my technical work stands. Pianists who have been curious about my technical accomplishments have apparently been amazed when I have told them that scales are my great technical mainstay – that is, scales plus hard work… and I may reiterate with all possible emphasis, that the source of my technical equipment is scales, scales, scales…”

Backhaus does not stand alone in attributing so much of his success to the regular practice of scales.

“During the first lessons”, Carl Czerny recorded in his memoires, “Beethoven kept me altogether on scales in all the keys”. Josef Hofmann, another great pianist whose playing was often described as a miracle of refinement, maintained that “the study of scales is more than necessary – it is indispensable. The pedagogical experts of the world are practically unanimous upon this subject.”

The pedagogical experts are still just as unanimous. This is perhaps why all the Australian music examination boards place scales and arpeggios at the very start of the examination before pieces, aurals or sight reading. It is probably true to say that most examiners unconsciously predict the quality of the playing for the rest of the exam after hearing only the first few scales.  The same importance is attributed to scales and arpeggios in almost every tertiary music course in Australia. The Faculty of Music at Melbourne University has recently re-introduced scales and arpeggios as part of the overall assessment procedure, while entrance to the Sydney Conservatorium is dependent upon passing quite a rigorous scale and arpeggio test.  At Adelaide University, scales account for 20% of the overall mark for all 1st and 2nd year music students.

The rationale behind making scales and arpeggios such a priority is quite straightforward: the majority of technical difficulties throughout the classical piano repertoire can be reduced to technical challenges that appear in the various forms of scale and arpeggio playing. This is especially so at the advanced level, where scales must be presented with a number of touch variations and permutations. To be fluent in scales and arpeggios is to be equipped in advance – to be able to deal comfortably with the vast complexity of challenges implicit in the pianoforte repertoire.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile at this point to explore exactly how the practice of scales and arpeggios can be harnessed to provide us with mastery over these fundamental skills.

1. Evenness of touch and tone

The moment a scale can be played with correct fingering and notation, the real work actually starts. The student’s debut into scale playing is generally marred by either wild and random accents, or notes that are barely audible. The beginner finds it very hard to judge the exact pressure required to strike a given note within a series of notes, and there is often an awkward lunging for notes which makes tonal control very difficult at this stage. However, since tonal control is such a fundamental building block in the art of interpretation, we can and should consciously use scale practice to progressively develop this skill to a very fine degree.

We need not wait for that far-off day when the exam boards finally demand scales to be played pianissimo or with crescendi and diminuendi. From the very outset we can urge our students to listen carefully to every note of the scale being played, hands separately and together – in order to first, eliminate those feral accents, and then to start applying to their scales the whole spectrum of the tonal palette, from pianissimo to fortissimo and with all the shades in between. Avoiding sudden bumps in an ascending crescendo scale is a worthwhile goal, especially if the scale extends to several octaves. Armed with this sort of preparation, when students finally confront their first short bursts of passage work in the early sonatinas, those semiquaver phrases will smile sweetly from the score and mould themselves into the most effortless and smooth crescendi under the students’ fingers.   

In her book on technique, Lillie Phillip, a student of Busoni and Liszt, suggests the advanced student consciously employ specific accents when practising scales, in order to overcome uncalled-for accents. By making the accents fall on different notes each time, we can teach the thumb to lose its prominence, and gradually coax the weaker 4th and 5th fingers out of hiding. Close attention to this area of scale playing would clearly enhance finger dexterity on a far more global level.

2. Rhythmic steadiness

The 4th and 5th fingers, being naturally weaker and less independent than the other fingers, create their own problems, especially in rapid passage work.  Here the issue is not only a question of tonal evenness but of rhythmic steadiness too. The untrained hand often “skids” through the weaker fingers, creating the false impression that because these fingers seem to be playing faster, they are somehow stronger.  Ironically it is their very weakness that results in a small collapse and tell-tale skid. Special exercises over an extended period may be needed to strengthen the 4th and 5th fingers, although we can also use an expedient “band-aid” solution. If during the normal course of scale practice, a little more pressure is applied when the 4th and 5th fingers play, the slippery uneven sound almost vanishes completely. This same strategy can then be applied to passage work in pieces.

Rhythmic unevenness is also caused by excessive hand and finger movements, with wrists sometimes performing a rodeo on every note and fingers busily poking about like the tentacles of sea-hydrae. Through intelligent scale practice, students can learn to weed out these unnecessary movements. Careful and slow practice especially (involving endless prompting on our part), provides the opportunity for students to look critically at their own hands whilst practising. There is clearly no need for them to be looking at the music, especially if we select the easier scales for this particular kind of work. If we continually urge our students to listen carefully to the sounds they make and to observe a “quiet”, neat finger action, it does not take long for the benefits gained to translate into their repertoire generally.

Rhythmic and tonal unevenness may result from tension in the shoulders, arms and fingers. It is far easier to insist that students relax from the shoulders down while they are practising a scale like C major in contrary motion, than to insist on the same thing in the middle of a staccato Czerny study. Why mix agendas? We can and should make scale playing the special time when students realize that their technical approach is under very close scrutiny. If they get into the habit of taking this work seriously, and consciously try to relax arms and curve fingers during scale practice, they are well on the way to eradicating tension in their playing generally.

Karl Leimar and his most distinguished pupil, the French pianist Walter Giesking, both spoke much about piano technique. They described the thumb as being the feeble finger, quite contrary to popular belief. When the thumb is tucking during a scale passage, it is closer to the keys than the other fingers so it sounds weaker. Paradoxically, the converse is also true – the thumb can often sound much stronger than the other fingers, but this is generally as a result of inappropriate use of the arm, or through dropping the wrist instead of employing a small lateral wrist movement while the thumb tucks under. Moreover, if the fingers are not well curved, the thumb can find itself ostracized from the rest of the action, near the very edge of the keys, and there is a slight but discernable pause each time the thumb is required. In a fast piece, this problem can scramble the flow of a passage entirely.

What better opportunity to engage in thumb-therapy, than through scales and arpeggios? Arpeggio practice is like taking our rebel thumbs to boot-camp. With every fourth note played, the problem presents itself again, and demands our attention.

There are many exercises in the various technical manuals, all designed specifically to ease the thumb’s journey when engaged in arpeggio playing. The basic strategy behind most of these exercises is to progressively extend the thumb’s ability to contract further and further while tucking under other fingers engaged in holding down keys. There is, however, a limit to how far we can push the thumb and many would argue that in very fast arpeggio work it is not really possible or even desirable to affect a true thumb legato. Some controversy surrounds this issue, but there seems to be no disagreement amongst authorities on the importance of releasing all residual tension in the hand during arpeggio practice. Professor Max Cooke, author of The Advanced Pianists’ Tone, Touch and Technique, has consistently advised that the hand should “close” as soon as possible after the necessary extension involved in arpeggio playing . At each successive step of the arpeggio, the finger last played draws closer to the finger about to be played so that the hand is not frozen in an extended position.

As teachers, we should insist that there be no unnecessary tension in the hands, that the thumbs do not shoot up like antennae, and that there is always a small but comfortable lateral wrist movement to aid the thumb in its tucking. Allowing thumb problems to persist through scale playing is like letting a broken leg set crookedly under plaster. The damage is very hard to repair.

3. Co-ordination and Independence of hands

The moment the beginner reaches the level of playing with both hands simultaneously, one of the fundamental challenges of pianoforte technique becomes apparent – that is, the need for both hands to be well coordinated with each other yet at the same time independent of each other. It only takes that first piece where the left hand might be playing staccato chords against a legato right hand melody for this sobering realization to occur.  And here too, we can use scales to encourage a high degree of ambidexterity.

Once the student can already play several basic scales with some degree of comfort, we can turn his attention to one of the most prevalent coordination problems facing piano students at all levels – the “splitting” of notes between the hands. This tends to happen in many pieces – one finger will strike a note a fraction before or after the other notes, rather than at exactly the same time. This creates a very shabby, untidy sound. Scale practice can be used as the very first weapon to combat this problem, since the whole business of scale playing gravitates around both hands playing two notes at exactly the same time, one note after the other, in quick succession.

The technical manuals rarely contain exercises devoted to the problem of splitting. It is perhaps assumed that a good all-round technique will in time take care of this problem. It is worth noting that in most cases, splitting occurs because the fingers of both hands are not striking the keys from exactly the same distance above the keyboard. One hand may have a more elevated wrist than the other, or the degree of finger release may not be identical amongst all fingers. Our first job is to make the students aware of the problem. Often just listening carefully is enough – the brain then somehow makes all the necessary adjustments. If we can detect which hand is anticipating, then another effective strategy is to exaggerate “the other way round”, that is, to deliberately try to bring the other hand in a fraction earlier. In most cases, this compensatory action eliminates the split altogether. The really hard part is detecting which notes are sounding too early.

It is worth mentioning here that one should not try to conquer all these problems at the same time. If there are too many items on the agenda, who is going to want to stay for the meeting?  The best method is to pick just one model scale – an easy one at that, and to systematically eliminate one problem after another, making sure the student at no stage feels flooded by the task at hand.

In terms of co-ordination skills, it is through the contrary motion scales especially that we give our axons and neurons such a vigorous shake-up. Once we confront some of the more complicated keys, like F# minor, or C# minor, the choreography involved in mastering contrary motion is anything but simple. Students can take weeks to get these scales right, but all the time we know that crucial operational files are being loaded onto their hard-drives. When the time comes to grapple with piano music involving independent melodic lines, weaving in and out of each other, the coordination skills will already be comfortably there.

Mack Jost in his entertaining and informative book, Yet Another Guide To Piano Playing, even suggests (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that the student attempts to play different scales in each hand in contrary motion. Whether or not we take students to the edge like this, we can still encourage them to “loop-the-loop” by adding various co-ordination challenges to their regular scale practice. Scales and arpeggios can be played legato in one hand, staccato in the other, forte in one hand, piano in the other. They can be practised in triplets against crotchets or even in cross rhythms for that matter. Not only are we reinforcing the actual security of the scales by practising in this way, but we are also maximizing the hidden potential of scale practice to refine our coordination skills for the more advanced levels of the pianoforte repertoire.

4. Agility, fluency and stamina

Playing scales regularly oils our joints and improves our overall finger agility and strength. It is natural that students unconsciously increase the tempi of scales as they feel more confident with them, but this sort of gradual tempo increase is only just scratching the surface. We can use scales and arpeggios in conjunction with a very powerful arsenal of practice methods, to give students a brand new definition of speed and agility. And what a morale boost it is for students to suddenly detect the glimmers of virtuosity in their own playing.

The same methods we use to develop fluency and speed in scale playing can be used to achieve similar results in any fast piece, but these methods are perhaps conveyed to students most effectively through the medium of scales and arpeggios.

a) Rhythm work

It is said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Apply enough tension at the weak points and this is precisely where the chain breaks apart. In the chain of notes that constitute a scale, the weak links create similar havoc – especially, or so it seems, during practical examinations.  Perhaps the most effective welding work that we can apply to these defective scale links is the diligent use of practice rhythms.

If we take the scale of B minor for example, and employ a rhythm consisting of 2 fast notes followed by 2 slow notes, then the most awkward area (F# – G – A# ) coincides with the faster rhythm and this is exactly where the scale wants to fall apart. It is our mission however to practise until we overcome the handicap that this particular rhythm presents. We then move onto another rhythm, possibly the reverse of the first one, and now the “hot spots” will have moved to another place in the scale. Using a variety of simple rhythms (dotted quavers, triplets, quavers combined with semi-quavers) over an extended period of time, we can become truly invincible in our scale and arpeggio playing. This is arguably the single most effective method in building up fluency and note security in scales, arpeggios and in passage work generally.

A very convincing teaching strategy involves making an impromptu cassette-recording of a student playing a particularly troublesome scale. The student should then spend the next five minutes or so practising the same scale in three or four different rhythms. Another recording of the scale should then be made directly after the first one, and then both should be played back to the student. The difference between the two recordings played one after the other is usually staggering, and this after only a few minutes work.  

b) Alternate accents and different starting notes

There are many other methods designed to build up speed and note security in scale playing. The value of using alternate accents has already been mentioned. For the more advanced students, scales can commence on the supertonic or mediant and can be used in conjunction with rhythms and alternate accents, one hand playing piano the other forte, one staccato the other legato and so on. These combinations may at first prove to be excruciating, but ironically it is this sort of challenge that some students find simply irresistible.

c) Note clusters, staccato and other methods

Another effective way of increasing fluency and speed is to divide the problem scale into clusters of notes that are played simultaneously.

This will only work with scales where the thumbs of both hands coincide each time, namely:

F# major (similar motion only), C# major (sim. motion), F major (sim. motion), F minor (harmonic & melodic, contrary harmonic), B major (sim. & cont. motion), B minor (harmonic & melodic, contrary harmonic).  The keynote is played by both hands simultaneously, then all the notes that appear before the next thumb appearance are played as another cluster, then both thumbs play together and so on. The sour discords created when practising scales in these clusters are well worth the final result, as the student starts to think ahead, dynamically, straddling groups of notes under whole hand positions rather than cautiously stringing single notes together.

To achieve infallible security in scale playing one can also use staccato and double staccato on every note. Accomplishing this feat while playing in rhythms is more challenging again. When the fingers are air-borne we can no longer rely on automatic pilot to get us there. Eliminating legato from scale playing is tantamount to wearing a blindfold while playing. The only way around the problem is to know every step of the scale, inside out.

Mention must be made of another quite delicious method of reinforcing note-security in scale playing. The thumbs are totally excluded in this approach; both hands use fingers 2, 3, 4 and 5 only. The left hand plays four notes, starting with the 5th finger on the tonic, then the right hand plays its four notes starting with finger 2 after which the left hand crosses over and the whole pattern is repeated from the start, four octaves ascending and descending. The same fingering is employed for each key, both major and minor. It is initially quite surprising, even amusing, to experience a high level of disorientation simply as a result of using totally foreign fingering for scales that hitherto were very familiar. This exercise not only provides a great workout for the fingers, it also forces us to quite consciously “place” every note of every scale which dramatically enhances our note security.

Contrary motion scales can be reinforced by practising them back to front, that is, from the extended outermost position coming back into the center again, since it is almost always this part of the journey that brings students to grief. Similar motion scales can also benefit greatly by being practised descending first and then ascending

With regards to increasing speed of scales and arpeggios, the metronome should always be on site. Progress to the next metronome notch should only be allowed when total control at a given speed can be demonstrated a certain number of times in a row. This method can also be used in conjunction with every other method described above, as the final double-whammy!

5. Establishing a sense of Key

If the student is fluent with the scale of D minor, for example, one would expect this to facilitate the playing of a piece set in D minor. The problem, however, is that students often play their scales in a detached, absent-minded manner, divorced from any theoretical context. Again, as teachers, it is our job to be aware of the hidden agenda here, and to help students make connections between their scales and the harmonic landscape of their pieces. We could for example ask the student to name the sharps used in D minor before playing even one note of the scale, in order to create a practical awareness of that particular key.

Our advanced students should know that the dominant 7th arpeggio of F#, quite apart from being a serious headache, also serves to drive us back to the tonic of the same key. Every scale or arpeggio played can be given a theoretical context no matter what the level of the student. Tonic triads can be constructed from every arpeggio played; the raised leading note of every minor scale can be named before the scale is played, and so on.

The above strategies are by no means exhaustive, but merely serve as examples of the many creative ways that scales and arpeggios can be practised.  Above all, scales and arpeggios should not merely be seen as bitter pills to be swallowed before exams, or as finger-warming exercises at the start of piano lessons. There is a wealth of instructional material implicit in the practice of scales and arpeggios. The real challenge is to continually draw out these theoretical and technical applications, so that students can begin attributing to scales and arpeggios the relevance and importance that they surely deserve.

2 Responses to “Flying High on Scales”

  1. Stewart Deans March 31, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Thank you for the article, it is very comprehensive.

    I have started to learn the piano in my dottage as a retirement activity. I notice there are a number of things that I need to improve on when playing scales.
    1 Simultaneous playing both hands. It is difficult to get the timing both hands the same on all scale notes. Usually I can hear some some notes are a bit off.
    2. Legato, I would like the get the notes to merge a little better as I often hear one or two notes that are a bit abrupt.
    3. Heavy. I tend to play with too much force.

    No doubt there are a lot of crimes that I am not aware I am committing but it seems that it is hard to concentrate on all the problem areas at once. Concentrating on one distracts from another.
    1. So what is the first thing to address or should I try to do all at once?
    2. Will the timing just improve if I keep playing the scales or does it require concentration and deliberate effort to improve the timing?
    3. Same question applies to the other issues, will they just improve or does one need to first hear the problem and then try to fix it?
    4. Do I slow the playing right down and concentrate on getting the timing correct

    Is there a general set of rules on what to do to improve scale playing.

    • Samantha Coates April 1, 2015 at 11:55 pm #

      Hi Stewart. First of all, good on you for practising scales and getting into it in your retirement!
      Do you have a teacher? All of your concerns are most easily addressed at the piano with a teacher. Timing (i.e. evenness of notes) and coordination are elements of technique that will improve with practice. Slow practice is always good, as well as practice in rhythms.
      There is no general set of rules, but your teacher can hopefully guide you in a direction that best works for you.

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