Scales for fun and dexterity
When I started out playing
the piano the only scale manuals available were the dreariest
publications you can imagine.
Each page had the same look - a ladder of notes extending
from 1 to 4 octaves, with fingering written in for every single
note and the only real distinguishing feature on the page being
the key signature. When
students approached these scales on the basis of note-names,
this entailed remembering the name of every note, as well as
all the sharps and flats needed for the scale. If accidentals were written in front of each
note, then remembering
each note name
was not so crucial, as they could alter
each note as it came along in the scale ladder. However the
page looked even busier and more confusing!
Eventually, through years of hard slog,
my fellow students and I began to remember the scales without
needing to refer to the scale manual by which time the keyboard
patterns began to make sense and we could more easily remember
the scale via the keyboard topography.
So some years ago, I
thought 'why not cut to the chase' and present the scale shapes
in terms of the keyboard pathway, with minimal fingering allowing
the scales to be taught in chunks.
The resulting book was called Pictorial Patterns
for Keyboard Scales and Chords.
These are some of the many ways to make scale learning 'funtastic'
The first of the strategies
I have devised is a technique called 'block out' in which
eight white notes of the scale range are depressed with
all fingers except the thumbs. This places the fifth fingers
of both hands on the tonic and upper tonic notes of the
scale. Then the
white keys are replaced by sharps and flats of the key
signature, always working in key signature order, which
helps reinforce key signature sequence, a good drill for
theory purposes as well! Once this is done, the entire keyboard
scale pathway is revealed and observations can be made
about the groups of black and white keys.
The next strategy is
to teach the scales in logical groups (not necessarily
agreeing with the examination requirements for each grade).
I have found that teaching the major scales in
this sequence greatly aids memory of the keyboard pattern
and the fingerings.
Group Three - Bb Eb Ab Db
As soon as all twelve
scales have been learnt over the range of one octave I
encourage students to play them around the cycle of fifths,
finishing each scale by playing the root position triad,
which, by taking the upper note of the chord - the Dominant
degree, automatically provides the tonic of the next scale.
By practicing scales in this manner, students see
the connections between the keys and the fingering groups.
I challenge them to play the sequence in under
two minutes. (The two-minute noodle scale practice!) The
feeling of self satisfaction when they can complete the
cycle efficiently and quickly,
is a reward in itself. Note: I teach the 12 major scales
over the range of one octave, without the complication
of the two-octave fingering, over a few months, so that
all the keys are covered in the first couple of years
of learning, rather than over a more extended time frame.
This helps their understanding of music and the process
of learning new pieces enormously.
Once this has been done, I teach scales over the
two octave range as needed.
- Some fascinating aspects
of the scale pathways on the keyboard,
provide intriguing ways to aid memorization. In my Pictorial
Patterns book I use graphic patterns
to show D Major scale is the photographic
negative of Db Major. The
positions in the scales which were black in the D scale, (F# and C#),
reverse and become the white
notes for Db major.(F and C) There are eight
pairs of scales which have this feature.
A similar phenomenon
occurs with triads - E Major ( white-black-
white) is the photographic
negative of Eb
(black-white-black) and so on.
- Fingering commonality: many scales use mirror fingers in groups.
I have coined the words 'fingering commonality' to describe
this phenomenon. For
instance every time a group of two black notes is played
in the scales of B, F# and D b
major both hands use fingers 32 (LH) and 23 (RH) . When
you hold just these fingers of both hands up in the air
they form the 'peace' sign. In the book, I demonstrate several of these
fingering chunks and how they apply to many different scales.
Thinking of the scale fingerings in chunks, simplifies the
skill of scale and arpeggio fingering enormously.
(Jacqueline Brandman demonstrating
the 'peace sign')
Once the student has
learned the major scale over two octaves, a direct connection
can be made to the relative minor scales and the modes. All the church modes including the Aeolian
Mode (now known as the natural minor scale) can be seen
as a segment of the two octave major scale pattern.
The major scale can be
commenced on any of the scale degrees, and the result
will be one of the Ecclesiastical modes. For instance,
beginning any major scale on the second degree,
will produce the Dorian mode. Students find this a fun
way of practicing the scales, and more to the point this
is how composers frequently use scale runs in the pieces. Finding a scale beginning on the tonic
degree in a piece of music is not always the norm.
A fun way to teach all
forms of the minor scale, is
to use the block-out technique. While holding
down all the notes of the scale, alter just the sixth
and seventh degrees to produce the melodic or harmonic
versions of the minor scale.
Don't forget to include
the practice of modern chords in their block, broken and
arpeggiated forms. These
chords accustom student's hands to a variety of spacings between the fingers so that they can conquer
more unusual patterns. In his workshops around the country, Australian Jazz
pianist and composer Kerin Bailey
demonstrates a practice routine including the seven standard
( I have been recommending the same sequence to
my students for many years and as a result it is also
included in Pictorial Patterns)
Combine scales and chords.
To really get to know the sounds of the scales
and chords, it is good to sound the chord in the left
hand and play the scale against it in the right, or even
to reverse hands and do this the other way.
For instance:- Cmaj7 chord
can be sounded while either the C Major scale or the C
Lydian scale is played. Each of the scales gives a slightly
different tone colour. Cm7 can be sounded while the Dorian Mode
on C is sounded as it blends very well. Some jazz tutors
suggest that you play the scale over the range of a 9th
to work it in with a two or four bar passage in 4/4 time.
I find that if the scale is extended to the 9th,
it tends to trigger more ideas for improvisation.
As we know there are many technical reasons
to teach scales, chords and arpeggios - security, finger strength,
speed and agility etc, but I find the motivation to practise
them comes from the realization that they are included in so
many pieces, and that once learned, whole chunks of many compositions
are 'ready to fly'. I make sure students put on their Sherlock
Holmes hats and analyse the pieces
they are learning to 'spot that scale!'
Then they can call on the pre- learnt information to
I hope the Funtastic ideas
presented in this article will create interest in the intriguing
topic of scale patterns and scale practice for students and