How to Use Scales
The Purpose of Scales, and How to Practice Them:
Scales are complicated exercises that should be practiced a variety of ways to ensure success. To become very fluent with scales at high speeds, it isn't enough to repeat them over and over with no purpose in mind. It also goes without saying that this way of practicing them is soul-crushingly boring and tiresome. There are many difficulties in scales that need to be practiced in isolation before you can combine them together and play the whole scale. This is similar in analogy to a piano piece, which can't be learned from start to finish but instead has to be broken down into many smaller and more easily learned parts - then combined. The reason for this in scales and in anything else is that it is very difficult or impossible to focus on improving more than one task at a time, which is what one would have to do if repeating the scale from start to finish. Even when it is possible in some cases to focus on many things at once, and even if it sometimes gets results to do so, it is always much less efficient, and therefore inferior to breaking the tasks down to practice one at time, because our time to practice piano is not unlimited. The good news is scales are a great tool to practice all aspects of music, and it's with these purposes that we should create our philosophy of how to play scales.
Here are the important components of the scale exercise:
0) Learning the Notes
1) Rhythmic accuracy and perfect counting (Most Fundamental)
a) Comfort, relaxation, confidence
c) Hand/Finger Placement
d) Key motions
ii) Thumb Under
iii) Hand shape
a) Comfort, relaxation, confidence
c) Hand/Finger Placement
d) Key motions
ii) Thumb Under
iii) Hand shape
3) Articulation accuracy (legato, staccato, etc.)
4) Dynamic accuracy
5) Tonal Control
Each of these components should be practiced in isolation, and gradually combined together. The way to do this is to play a scale at a very comfortable slow speed - as low as necessary to play well. Sometimes this means not playing too slowly, because at too slow of a speed your concentration can be easily disrupted. You may not be very comfortable playing scales at any speed, so pick the best speed you can. It doesn't matter how slow or fast it is, but should probably be quite slow. Next, you will need to work very hard on becoming independent from the metronome for awhile. Rhythmic accuracy, next to playing the right notes, is fundamental and necessary before learning how to improve any other part of your scales (or music for that matter). Once you are working on other areas of your scales, you must continue to strive for rhythmic precision and come back to working on it as needed.
You need to be using your ear to work on the other aspects of the scale and this only becomes possible once you can ignore the metronome. The goal of exercises for #1 on this list is to achieve complete independence from the metronome. Once this is accomplished, pick an exercise to do in a scale and practice it with the goal of achieving perfection in that particular area. Concentrate only on the goal of the exercise and try to 'file' other things away into your subconscious. At first, you will be working on some singular aspect while 'filing' away rhythmic accuracy. If it is too difficult to do, then continue practicing #1 (rhythmic accuracy) until it is automatic. Once you can practice rhythm and any other aspect, it is not really necessary to rigidly combine things in some particular order - you can try practicing any two combinations (for example, perfect dynamics and articulation) as long as your rhythm is precise. Then you can try practicing more than two aspects at once, until eventually you try to do them all. It is extremely challenging and will take an enormous amount of time before you can perfect every aspect of playing a scale at any speed.
It is not necessary to practice in every key all of the time - in fact, the exercise of the scale itself is what is important, not what particular key you are playing in. Try to play a different scale every day, or play groups of scales. Every scale is essentially unique, but at the same time not that different from the others. The skills you build in one scale will transfer to every other scale. The point of this approach is to be fun and flexible - you can practice any scale and any aspects you want. Maybe D# melodic minor will be your scale today, or perhaps D Major? Just make sure to be precise rhythmically - if you have problems here, solve them first. Hopefully now scales can be more fun and interesting to practice. In time you will be able to play any scale and yes, eventually you will have to practice them all.
Before starting any exercises, find your 'comfort speed'. Find the speed you can play at as comfortably as possible, and write this speed down. This may vary slightly between scales but don't worry too much - as long as your scales are close to each other in speed it's fine for them to vary a bit- keep a table log of each scale. Alternatively, you can pick the lowest speed. You will stay at this speed for all of these exercises until you can successfully combine all of them together and play a flawless scale. Then increase the metronome by 1bpm and repeat the exercises. You may find that the amount effort required to surmount the initial comfort speed is colossal, but the increase of 1bpm is almost non-existent. You may also find that later down the road, for some reason moving a few bpm up from where you are seems very difficult, because you've hit a speed wall for your current technique, and new motions need to be discovered. All of this is quite normal - piano progress is never linear.
The most important final note is to give no thought or care whatsoever to the beats per minute you are currently at or planning to arrive at. You should stay happily where you are until you have achieved total mastery at that speed - a beautiful clean scale at a low speed is worth a thousand sloppy scales at a high speed.
Important note: When I use the term "spurts" in this article, it just means quick repetitions at varying speeds (constant for each spurt, but subject to increase or decrease at your desire). In this case it would be acceptable to exceed the metronome for these little exercises - after all, you want these difficult areas to be super solid and you want to expose the issues that come up playing them fast. Aside from these mini-exercises, when playing entire two-handed exercises stay at your comfort speed and enforce rigorous rhythmic accuracy.
0) Learning the Notes
Scales should be learned very well hands separately, and then put hands together very slowly, one note at a time. This is one of the first very challenging obstacles for a beginning piano player because the hands must become decoupled - they are performing radically different motions together, crossing over and under at different times and assuming different shapes. To get on the right track, it's a good idea to read the 'Finger/Hand Placement' and 'Key Motions' sections and to roughly aim for these approaches but do not worry at all about perfecting them straight away. This article for the most part assumes you are an intermediate player who has learned their scales, but wants a better way to practice them (my own situation really.)
1) Rhythmic Accuracy and Perfect Counting:
Rhythmic accuracy is simple to comprehend on its own, but many of us don't understand how to achieve it and find the metronome troublesome and counter-productive to use. The truth is we will all find it nearly impossible to develop a correct sense of rhythm without working on it in isolation, and it will still take a lot of work. It can take years to develop a very solid sense of this, so it's important to do it the right way - the metronome is a terrible thing if you waste your time listening to it while practicing other things. Listening to a metronome and repeating something over and over again until it reaches that clicking speed is a terrible and soul-crushing way to do scales and all other music, and also horrifically backward. The goal of these exercises is to make rhythm a part of your subconscious thinking so you can eventually get rid of the metronome altogether, just using it to set an initial tempo and check how you are doing without it. Once it's gone you can then file it away into your subconscious focus on improving the rest of the music. Free from that incessant clicking or beeping, rhythm will instead become the lovable (and now wonderfully accurate) groove of music that it's meant to be.
1) Set the metronome, and play the scale counting loudly out loud. First count quarters only. Then add smaller subdivisions - eighths, and then sixteenths. Then try longer notes - count only half notes, then whole notes. A four octave two-handed scale with sixteenth notes as the smallest division will have 14 quarter notes. You can count it as a time signature with 14 beats per measure, break it up into smaller groups, or just count on one for the whole scale. Eventually move towards counting softer and softer.
2) The next step is counting in your head. Choose quarter notes as your starting subdivision as they are easiest. Remember to concentrate only on rhythm during these exercises. Don't purposely be sloppy in your playing, but do not worry about very good technique, proper dynamics, etc. because when you start to focus on other things you will have a very hard time focusing on counting rhythm in your head. If you want, use some kind of external rhythm counter (foot tapping, gentle swaying, etc.) as well as internal counting but the goal in the end is to jettison this and create an internal pulse or groove. Feel the groove, but when performing you don't want to be distracting from the music by clicking your teeth or something. To increase the difficulty, go to eighth notes and sixteenth notes, and then try half notes and whole notes.
3) It can't hurt to try other rhythmic variations; for example, you can practice playing scales in different subdivisions (like triplets) or different time signatures. Scales are in fact just the tool for this practice, but these would be less about scales themselves and more about rhythm in general.
4) Gradually get rid of the metronome. Start by turning the volume down bit by bit, until it's barely audible. Then stop using it, trying instead to rely on that internal pulse or groove, only checking occasionally to see how you are doing. If you have a digital piano, you can record
of your practice which will give you exact feedback of how rhythmically precise
you are without a metronome.
2a) Technique: Comfort, Relaxation, Confidence
Comfort is more than just being relaxed at the piano and finding your playing to be easy. Comfort is also a state of mind - it's playing something while feeling very confident in what you are doing because it is not straining you. For many players, even ones who can play challenging pieces, this state of mind is foreign to them. They are never 'truly' comfortable, and always on edge about mistakes and always building tension throughout a piece. The only way to get better at this is to do it on its own. Total confidence in scales will come when you have mastered every aspect of them, but you can go a long way practicing comfort, relaxation, and confidence by doing so in isolation.
1) Breathing exercise - Play your scale, and concentrate on breathing as much as you need to feel calm, keeping every single aspect of your body relaxed except for the tiniest amount of tension necessary to play the notes. Take deep breaths through your nose as much as possible and through your diaphragm, not shallow breaths with your chest. There is a lot of information about proper breathing techniques in Yoga manuals and other places and it all applies here. Try to practice taking deep breaths in opportune periods of time - such as when the rest of the technique allows for it. Don't force deep breaths in areas of the scale where they aren't comfortable. Try to feel a positive mindset or mind when you are playing - that you are having fun and that what you are playing is taking effort, but it's not worrying you or making you tense. Instead, think about how fun and enjoyable it is to play the piano while also feeling calm, relaxed, oxygenated!
2) Posture exercise - Play your scale and pay attention to your entire body. Discover that perfect posture that works for you - keeps you looking upright to the audience (difficult to find for some with back problems like me) but also gives you as little pain or tension (or none of you can) anywhere in your body. Also find that perfect distance and bench height (distance is where you can access the whole piano comfortably, height is where your arms are level with the keys and don't have to raise up or down). Discover all of this - discover your piano playing pose. Once you find it, play your scale over and over and pay attention to when you are shifting around or becoming uncomfortable, and try to revert to your comfortable zone. A lot of people never find this before they dive into all sorts of piano stuff and pay the price later.
If you can't do these exercises at the speed you are playing then slow down. Don't consciously worry very much about other aspects of scales while practicing these things, but don't get too sloppy either of course. It's also a good idea to make an exception to the usual principle of not combining exercises: it's never a bad idea to practice breathing and relaxation while doing any other exercise! However, you will find that until you can do it in isolation, you will probably not be able to pay any attention to it while concentrating on making every note exactly as loud as the next (for example)!
When we are playing anything in piano, it's easy to get a bit sloppy and compensate for it, instead of be rigorously accurate. For example, all but one major scale and one minor scale include black keys. Striking these black keys must be precise because they are smaller than the other keys. Actually you should be precise on white keys also - aim for the center of the note, and with the motions to make accuracy as sure as possible. If your motions are naturally getting your fingers into trouble, it's time to work on them. Striking those black keys requires a degree of precision you may not appreciate until you are in the 80bpm range of speed and suddenly you are flubbing black keys left and right.
Remember, the more precise you are early on, the more precise you will be later if you continue to work on it - it will carry indefinitely into future speeds until you are playing 160bpm striking every single key dead center. It also means that if for whatever reason you are not up to par (exhaustion, nervousness, etc.) your usual precision will mean that any deviations these random factors create will be greatly nullified. If you are off by a little bit, you still won't be flubbing any notes because of how precise your accuracy is.
1) Play your scale, and concentrate on placing your fingers as accurately as possible. Play as slow as you need in order to hit every note comfortably and accurately in such a way that with practice you feel precise enough not to worry about flubs.
2c) Hand/Finger Placement
Closely related to the above topic of accuracy is hand/finger placement. Black keys are often struck with a curved finger, but this need not always be the case despite what some teachers want you to believe. Playing black keys flatter offers some more ease but it can be awkward when you are playing surrounding white keys in a curved fashion. Whenever you are playing white and black keys, use the 'grey' area of the piano - the area between being all the way into the black keys and all the way down in the white keys. Experiment with different combinations of flat and curved fingers and different placements of the hand in or out of the keys. An important truth to realize is that there is no one right way to play in all situations, but there are right and wrong ways in every particular situation. It may seem like there are a gazillion situations but they can all be reduced to a finite number of placements, hand positions, and finger curvatures - it's all about what you are playing and your goal should be to find the combination and motion that is the most comfortable and produces the sound you want. To some extent, scales are just difficult for human hands to play in a lot of ways - it seems we can never find perfect solutions for our hands to effortlessly roll up and down the keys from white notes to black notes with our uneven fingers. But this is your chance to practice these little groups of notes on their own without having to worry about playing the entire scale perfectly.
1) Experiment - for any one group of notes in a scale that is troublesome, practice different hand and finger placements to find a comfortable solution, and then practice your solution spurts.
2) White Keys and Black Keys - Practice small groups of notes in spurts and focus on evenness.
3) Black Keys - Pick a section of black keys in a row (such as the key of F# major or D# Minor) and play them with very flat fingers in spurts aiming for perfect evenness.
4) For White Keys - Play an entire C Major scale with curved fingers. Now try flat finger positions - both are appropriate for groups of white keys, depending on the situation.
2d) Key Motions (epicycles, thumb under, hand shape)
People who practice scales quickly figure out that not all motions are equal in difficulty. In fact, there seem to be just a couple of motions that cause almost all of the trouble. The first is the thumb crossing under going up in the right hand, and the thumb crossing under going down in the left hand. The next two are the fingers crossing over the thumb - L.H. going up, and R.H. going down. Included in this discussion are all of the small variations of these themes in other scales. It stands to reason then that we should give these the appropriate amount of concern, yet so many people just repeat scales over and over practicing these motions only a few times on each go, while these weakest links prevent them from speeding up the whole thing. Meanwhile the whole thing is probably ready to be played faster! Don't get sucked into this trap - these motions require focused practice.
There are big 'debates' to be had about which motions are 'optimal' but anyone can see that basic or intuitive motions often don't get the job done; repeating them over and over causes a lot of strain and never gets that fast. The most important thing to realize is our imperfect hands on this strange contraption will not be playing scales like typing on a keyboard - imperfection in form will be necessary to create perfect sound! What I mean by that is that our hands will look 'funny' or 'asymmetrical' and that's exactly what is needed. Some people might think that all scales are played the same, or with the same motions. In reality, every single scale is unique in the motions it requires and the shape of the hand. I don't even think it's particularly useful to group them into fingering patterns, etc. Of course, although being unique, the differences between them are not enormous either, so you don't have to worry about devoting a year to mastering each scale's particularities. In fact, skill in one scale will transfer to every other scale perfectly well, even though they are completely unique! How incredible the human mind is!
So what basics apply to pretty much all scales? The first is epicycles - in order for a finger to cross over another finger, the hand should rotate to help out. This will require turning your wrist in the appropriate direction. This may result in your elbow and forearm tiling out or in a bit - this is necessary. Epicycles should be practiced in isolation and the goal is to make them comfortable and to do what is necessary but not more. Most people use these motions to at least some extent subconsciously, but since they aren't aware of what they are doing, they don't stop to consider exactly what it is they are doing and why, and whether they are doing it too much or to little. The goal of an epicycle should be that the rotation of the wrist allows the motion of the scale to stay fluid and uninterrupted. The point of this technique is that you can continue to go up and down without interruption by making it one fluid motion instead of stopping, starting, and lots and LOTS of strain that will happen otherwise. For example, in the right hand going down in the C Major scale, as soon as the thumb reaches C4 and your 4th finger wants to cross over, you are aiming for a motion that starts really before your thumb hits C and ends after your 4th finger hits B3. In one fluid motion, your wrist prepares to rotate sometime earlier (around E or D perhaps) and then goes around your thumb to allow your 4th finger to strike B3 in one motion. This requires quite a turn on the part of your wrist and can be feel quite strenuous at first but this is why you have to practice it in isolation - if practiced enough with comfort and relaxation as the goal, along with economy of motion, freedom and looseness of the wrist should be achieved to the point that this motion causes no undue strain. If this motion is bothersome, attempting to play a scale is hopeless. Of course, it may never be totally effortless either, but your goal is to get as close as possible.
Next is thumb under motions. Having to cross your thumbs under your hand is the notorious bane of all scales and greatly restricts what humans can accomplish. There are some who argue that thumb crossings at high speeds to achieve legato is unnecessary or even impossible, and that a lose wrist and a quick break in legato is preferable. The debate is not that important however because in the end, these so-called different methods really converge on the same thing - a free wrist. When playing legato, your wrist must learn to be free to rotate and stay rotated to some extent. If your hand is not positioned at a comfortable angle, the thumb under motion is just too slow and straining to ever achieve comfort and high speeds. By tilting your hand, your thumb has less travel distance and requires less motion of those slow muscles to go where it needs to go. Also, it becomes possible (just as with epicycles) for the thumb under motion to begin and end before it actually happens, creating one fluid uninterrupted motion. It's also important to focus on the thumb itself - it is said that having a straight thumb and playing with the knuckle is ideal. Of course, this isn't how it works for everyone, but if your thumb is pointing awkward directions or is very tense take a moment to find out what works for you.
Now it's time to discuss hand shaping. When playing anything on the piano, an important goal to achieve is what is commonly called "quiet hands". This just means that your hands are not freaking out from note to note or chord to chord with lots of unnecessary motions. Most importantly, they are 'relaxed' while achieving this economy of motion. In scales, how much motion of your hands is really necessary to play the scale? If we understand that the same notes are being repeated over and over, it seems like we really need maybe only one hand shape, plus the motions we already discussed. It's possible to divide the scale up further perhaps, but by and large I feel that only one primary shape is required. This doesn't mean that you keep your hand perfectly still and tense to make it look as quiet as possible! It just means your hands should largely be static and relaxed while the shape of your hand is already set for the work that needs doing. An easy example is the C# Major scale. In this scale, your thumbs play white keys while the rest play black keys - possibly the most harmonious arrangement of all the scales! Your hands can maintain a steady shape throughout this scale and the fingers need only do a small amount of work to play the scale. This is probably the ideal scale I would use to practice hand shape and quiet hands. More than any other scale, this scale gets closest to that 'perfect' form of typing that many imagine should be used to play scales. In fact, placing your hands perfectly even and spaced like on a keyboard is almost the perfect motion for this scale!
Other scales can get much harder however and the law of imperfect form to achieve perfect sound applies instead. Tension will build up quickly trying to keep one hand shape. But the goal is that there is going to be a shape of the hand that requires the least amount of extra motion to do all of the necessary motions required for that scale. When you watch a very good pianist play a rapid scale, you notice that their hand adopts a shape and rockets up and down the keyboard alternating between thumb under motions for R.H. or epicycles for L.H., and vice versa. If you've tried to play scales very fast and had any success, you notice that this is just what your hand naturally seems to want to do. There is just not time for anything but the bare minimum of motion you need - your hand will naturally want to form the optimal shape that requires the least extra motion so that your fingers and wrist rotations can get the rest done. Like everything else, this must be practiced in isolation, and no faster than you can do correctly (except when using exploratory spurts).
1) Play your scale and focus on epicycles and thumb under motions. When going up with a two-handed scale, your left hand will be doing epicycles while your right hand is rotated to accommodate the thumb under motion. It will be the reverse going down.
2) Try practicing just going down from the top of the scale, in isolation. The reason for this is a lot of people get stuck practicing scales from the start over and over, and this sometimes means they get more practice going up the keyboard than down. Also, different issues crop up when you have to lean over to the higher register compared with when you are in your comfort zone (where pianists typically start their scales.)
3) Pick a particular troublesome epicycle or thumb under in a scale and practice it in spurts, in isolation.
4) When practicing epicycles and thumb under motions, try to adopt a rigid hand shape and imagine that they are 'anchors' that stay nearly motionless while your fingers do the playing. If the position is uncomfortable or builds tension, adjust it until it feels more relaxed and natural. Don't tense up your hand to keep it rigid - if it's an economic shape it should want to form that way to reduce effort!
2e) Articulation Accuracy
Scales are in general played legato, but it's easy to get sloppy and play them too legato. Also, other articulation patterns are called for in music and scales are a great tool to practice them all.
1) Play your scale and focus on being as cleanly legato as possible.
2) Reverse articulation - to improve your legato, try playing a scale staccatisimo to get used to a clean break.
3) Practice a whole scale with a tenuto or accent on each note. Reversing the articulation you are desiring to produce counter-intuitively will help you learn it.
4) Note that for things like accents and tenutos, you will want to get your entire body involved for a good tone (especially your wrists). Feel free to practice finger accents (playing loudly from the knuckle, Hanon style) but this isn't the only thing you should practice.
3) Dynamic Accuracy
After having mastered and combined all of the previous aspects for hours and hours, there is still more work to be done. Without dynamic control over notes or scales in general, we can't hope to ever play musically. However, having reached this step and having gone onto learn it, we are taking our first steps into the wonderful world of musical interpretation - the point of all this work! There are really two aspects to dynamics - the touch and feel (tactile sense) and what you are hearing (aural sense). Perfect control of dynamics is achieved when these senses are in harmony. Often, most players have very good senses of one or both in isolation, but have enormous trouble combining them. A good place to start is to play everything at the same level of volume. The first step in mastering dynamic accuracy is to play every note equally loud (mf). Although we should be cautious about playing everything loudly to mask our incompetence, aiming for no dynamic variation at all is actually just as challenging as putting in consciously-directed and musical dynamic variation. This is because they are really the same thing - consciously controlling and paying attention to the dynamics. Because of the differences in finger strength, and all of the technical motions required to perform a scale, this is an extremely difficult exercise to really do right. Most people give up at trying to perfect this and just accept a lower standard. It's all up to you in the end what kind of quality of playing you want to achieve. You don't have to be a God of dynamics to make things sound good but, don't you want to be? So play that scale and listen - listen very carefully. Are you really playing everything at the same level? I would go with mf as your dynamic level because it will throw out the idea of smashing everything working. If you hear even the slightest variation, work on it. If you are unable to do this or some of the other above aspects suffers, you are either not ready or playing too fast. Many, many hours and of patient work in this area will be rewarded.
1) Play a scale with every note being mezzo-forte.
2) Play a scale with every note at some other dynamic level (I'd go with p and pp next, be careful with f)
3) Play a scale with a gradual crescendo going upwards and a decrescendo going downwards.
4) Play a scale with multiple crescendos and decrescendos, starting with just two going up and one going down.
5) If you have a digital piano,
can be used to see how loud you are playing every note! This will give
you feedback on both your ear and your touch sense. You may find that you
aren't as accurate as you want but more importantly, this can be used as a tool
to perhaps achieve ungodly levels of dynamic precision.
4) Tonal Control
Tone is the endgame of technique. Having mastered rhythm, fingerings, articulations, and dynamics, you now realize that you have a wealth of sounds on the piano you can create at will. You have realized that subtle changes of finger placement alter touch, subtle increases of tension in your playing in some areas adds a different tone, and subtle fluctuations in rhythm create an infinity of possibilities in phrasing. Combining these skills with knowledge of the damper pedal and soft pedal, and suddenly the piano is instrument of incredible musical potential. There are limits to what kind of sounds the piano can produce, but those limits are far higher than you probably realize.
1) Experiment - try playing scales with different touches, varying articulations, and paying attention to and learning the subtly different sounds of each. Create a musical inventory of these sounds.
2) Try using different amounts of pedal and soft pedal as you play a scale. See what sound a particular approach creates without pedal, with 1/4 pedal, with 3/4 pedal, and with full pedal. Try adding different levels of soft pedal as well.
3) Introduce tightly controlled but audible rubato in your scales. Focus switching back to keeping rigid rhythm at will.
4) Use scales now as a tool to explore a whole world of music!