Scale routines as our alphabet

There are probably as many ways to teach scales as there are piano teachers, with each of us having our own routines, chord progression, practicing tricks, mnemonics, etc. Whatever the method of teaching scales, I think it is crucial to make sure we have a very clear intent on what we are teaching because scales encompass many concepts both technical and theoretical.

I like to think of the major and minor scales being our language's alphabet. When we teach children and adults the language of English, we start with letters, then put them together to make words and sentences. Fluency is achieved when one can read, speak and understand paragraphs. English teachers will incorporate instruction of the sounds, the parts of speech and the definitions from the beginning lessons. I think we need to do the same for music. For all instruments. From my observations, we tend to be really good at teaching the pieces, but not as good at teaching how the pieces are put together. I think part of the reason we are not as good at studying how the music is put together is because we don't study our scales like they are the alphabet of music.

So, that is my intent when teaching scales to my students. Teaching the scales in a way which focuses on using them as a theoretical basis for Western harmony rather than solely as a finger exercise. In general my focus first is the CONCEPT, second is FINGERING, third is FLUENCY, fourth is VELOCITY. Here is my outline of how I do it.

Within the first months of lessons (exactly when depends on the student), I begin with five finger scales. We start with C Major and c minor and continue around the Circle of Fifths (C, then G, then D, etc.) doing both the major and minor of each key in a week. We do the scale with both left and right hand but not hands simultaneously. The main concept we are trying to learn is the SOUND of major and the SOUND of minor. The difference in sound happens because there is only one key different, but it is such an amazing difference! I love it when we get to D major and minor and students assume that just like C and G the scale will be all white keys and they play it and discover the sound is minor. Because I am focusing on the SOUND as the most important concept, we do not drill the scales forever until hand position is perfect. Comfortable hand positioning takes time to develop, it will not happen in a few weeks. Neither will control of all five fingers happen immediately. But we have 12 scales (at least 12 weeks) to work on hand positioning.
Other concepts we might discuss based on the aptitude of student will be half steps and whole steps, the pattern of each new scale being five steps higher. I do not shy away from using the black keys and their names. When the keys start getting tricky I will draw pictures of the keys used in their notebook so they can use the picture as a guide to finding the hand position.

After the five finger scales I move on to 1 octave scales. Yes, this means my students will often be doing 1 octave scales with the thumb under, 3 over motion within the first year of piano study. (If the student is not physically ready, then I might end up doing the five finger scales over again, that time around with the focus being on finger agility.) This time our focus is on hearing/learning the complete 1 octave scale. This time around I do relative major and minor (only natural form at this time). We do one key each week, so one week C Major, the next week a minor, next week G Major, next week e minor. This is assuming that practicing is going well enough that we can play the scale comfortably after one week of practicing. The concepts on which I like to focus are:
1. Every scale uses every letter of the musical alphabet
2. We add sharps and take away flats as we go around the Circle of Fifths
3. Major and minors are relative to each other.

I do not do a huge discussion of fingering patterns, but for the most part I have not had a problem with students playing the scales. We do not play them quickly and we definitely do not play both hands at the same time. As we practice the scales together, I will point to the finger numbers I have written in their notebook since students still at this point have some trouble tracking letters and numbers on the page. I prefer to not use a scale book or notation on lines and spaces for this. (Remember my intent is to know the letters of the scales.) I will write the letters of the scale in one line of the notebook, above the letters I put the right hand finger numbers, below I put the left hand finger numbers. This way we are not actually needing to be reading lines and spaces to do the scales. I like students to sing the finger numbers as they play to help get the sound of the scales internalized.

If we have any additional concepts, these would be the whole and half step patterns and the order of sharps and flats. But, I do not focus on those unless the student is showing an above average theoretical aptitude.

If I feel the student has a general grasp of the 1 octave scales when we have gone around the whole Circle of Fifths, we will then start 2 octave scales, still only one hand at a time. I add two concepts this time and reinforce the concepts from the 1 octave scales. The first new concept is harmonic minor, the second is hand over hand arpeggios of the tonic chord. We do both natural and harmonic minor scales when doing minor so in the students' minds they have two scales to practice on the minor weeks (horrors!). For the hand over hand arpeggios we do four octaves plus the root again on the top. For example, for C Major we would do left hand CEG, the right hand CEG in the next higher octave, left hand crosses over to the next higher octave to do CEG, right hand moves to the next higher octave to do CEG, left hand crosses over to do the next C. We do it backwards for descending - GEC. The arpeggio introduces them to the tonic chord and really forces them to think about the letters of the chord.

By the time we have finished going around the Circle of Fifths again the fingerings are getting much more solid. But, I still do not think it is enough to put hands together yet. This time around we do 1, 2 and 3 octave scales. For minor, 1 octave is the natural minor, 2 octaves is harmonic minor and 3 octaves is melodic minor. Also new is the tonic arpeggio with arpeggio fingerings (so not hand over hand). We are reinforcing and reviewing all the previous concepts. New concepts are the melodic minor and by now I definitely am wanting students to be able to tell me the order of sharps and order of flats. They should also be understanding the third relationship between relative major and minor. What I feel is the most important concept at this point is that I have them practicing the tonic and dominant chords of each key. In root position. By the end of this time around the Circle they should easily be able to spell these out on their own because we have learned the concept, not just memorized chords. Tonic is always on the first note of the scale, we always skip a letter to build our thirds. Dominant is always on the fifth note of the scale.

I think it is really important to learn to spell these chords in root position. I had the experience once of teaching a college piano class for music majors who had been trained to play some fairly complex cadences on the piano. I was impressed until I started asking the to spell me chords. For example, the vi of D Major. The same students struggled to spell what I would consider to be a simple chord spelling for a music major. When my intent is to acquire theoretical fluency, I want my students to be able to spell chords for me and know their function within the key rather than rote play a cadential pattern.

One note about all these scale routines. These are my guidelines, but I do need to often modify because a student needs more work on a concept or simply because they struggle with (or refuse to) practice. For example, we might need to do another round of 2 octave scales or maybe go up to the 3 octave scales and not do the arpeggio yet. Whatever is going to help the student learn the material eventually. Not doing scales is not an option for my students since this is a huge part of how I teach music theory.

By this time around the Circle, fingerings are starting to be fluent (although c-sharp and f-sharp melodic minors might need some prompting). But, I still like to stick with only hands separate scales. This time we do 1 octave scales in quarter notes (natural minor), 2 octaves in eighths (harmonic minor), 3 octaves in triplets (melodic minor). We also do the 1, 2 and 3 octaves in different note values for the tonic arpeggios. Our new concept is spelling and playing in root position I-iii-vi-IV-V-I in every key. By root position I mean that we will play each chord in root position. This means the student will need to pick up their hand for each chord resulting in no smooth transitions. My intent is fluency of spelling chords. We also will be working on key signatures at this time.

One "key" (pun intended) point about key signatures. I think we often teach them backwards. As in we look at the key signature of a piece first and then say the piece should be in this key. For example, we see two sharps so we say that the piece must be in D Major or in b minor. I think we instead need to look at the music first, identify the MUSIC as having the attributes of the key. For example, b minor would have b minor chords, cadences on b, F sharp Major chords, etc. Then we recognize the key signature as a RESULT of the music. I might be splitting hairs here, but I think we need to recognize key signatures as a DEscription of the music rather than a PREscription.

Now, if you remember way back at the top of the page my four tenets of concept, fingering, fluency, velocity, I think by now my student has gone through all the concepts of basic major/minor harmony. We have encountered all the fingerings, fluency is coming along simply because of repetition. Time to work towards velocity. I like to do another time around the Circle, still doing hands separately to get some speed. This time we do 4 octave scales in sixteenth notes instead of 3 octaves in triplets.

Big question, why do I wait so long to do hands together scales? Reason 1: if hands separate is not fluent, putting hands together is very time consuming and frustrating. Reason 2: I don't see hands together scales as incredibly practical. We practice scales for theoretical knowledge and for finger preparation of pieces. How many pieces in the repertoire actually use hands together scales? Two come to my mind immediately - Beethoven 3rd Concerto and Chopin g minor Ballade. There are probably more, but my point is that if we are doing scales to prepare  for pieces, there are very few pieces actually using hands together scales. I think I have some time to prepare students before they will actually be ready to play those pieces. We can push off the frustration of doing hands together scales for a while. Interesting observation I have made though, when I wait this many times around the Circle before doing hands together, it actually hasn't been frustrating. I usually just suggest, hey maybe try hands together now and they can do it because they have done so much hands separate work. We might need to do some blocking work on a few scales to tighten up fingerings, but overall it is a much simpler task than if I try to do hands together earlier in their piano study.

One concept I have not focused on is the whole and half step patterns of the scales. Yes, I think this is important, but since my focus is on seeing key relationships and a thorough understanding of the Circle of Fifths, I don't spend an excessive amount of time on memorizing whole and half step patterns. I actually usually discuss these patterns with students when we analyze and play pieces using modal scales.

Usually the routines in this list will take us through four maybe five years of piano study. This means they will have an understanding of key relationships as we move into repertoire which is solidly in the category of Intermediate repertoire. Which means we are actually able to do harmonic analysis of pieces and see modulations and identify the difference between an Exposition and Recapitulation of a Sonatina. It is so much fun to teach the pieces when the students have been prepared for analysis!

Now, I am not claiming that my students are perfect at theoretical analysis. That takes practice and lots of guidance. But at least I feel (and hope) they know the building blocks of the music.

Moving beyond these routines we work on fluency and velocity, which I feel should  eventually be a different blog post. My routines are always getting tweaked and adapted for each student, but hopefully this gives some ideas of how to use the scales for creating pianists who are strong music theorists. I love using the scales right at the beginning of the lesson so we right away get our brains engaged in our music making.

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