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You should practise your scales at the piano!

Hands up if you are bored with your scales practice. I know I was when I was a student. The constant running up and down the keyboard, how ‘unmusical’ it all sounded sometimes.

And perhaps most importantly of all, I didn’t really GET it. Why play all these scales? What’s the benefit of it all?

Sounds familiar?

Scales form such an indispensable part of your pianistic journey that it’s sad they are so loathed by so many piano students.

It’s easy to see why. Scales all kind of sound the same and yet it takes years to master them all. You can see how that can get a little… boring.

There are certainly plenty of ‘tricks’ to make scale practise more fun and engaging – but that’ll be a topic for a future post.

Instead, I want to talk about WHY you should practise scales and HOW it may benefit your overall practice and progress.

Oh and a little disclaimer before we continue: when I say ‘scales’, don’t just think major and minor, think blues scales, whole-time scales, chromatic scales, arpeggios, dominant 7ths, and, heck, think CHORDS as well! They are all part of the ‘scale practice universe’ in my book.

Scales are considered a fundamental tool to develop pianistic technique.

While scales in themselves do little to aid the development of your fingers (scales do NOT equate technique – I can’t stress that enough) they ARE considered technical work and as such, with due care, diligent (intelligent) practice and good instruction, they are indispensable tools to develop your technique at the keyboard.

For instance, learning scales helps to develop finger independence and evenness in playing. That is if you practise them right!

Whether you see technique benefits from playing scales is 100% dependent on the quality of your practice. Students who rush through their scales or try and speed up before they are ready tend to do more harm than good in the long run.

I cannot overstate the importance of allowing technique to develop at a slow, healthy pace.

Expert tip: practise your scales slowly and with full awareness. Speed will come! Once you can play your scales at grade 8 speeds comfortably, advanced level scales can then be achieved using advanced practice techniques that won’t negatively impact your development. As always, patience is the key to long term success. You won’t impress anyone by playing fast if it’s with sloppy technique, terrible tone or unevenness.

Scales help you develop a good sense of keyboard geography and bodily awareness

I always tell my students when learning a scale to be aware of the ‘feel’ of the layout of the scale.

Where do the notes sit?

For instance, in G major in your right hand you want to consciously ‘feel’ the black note in your fourth finger before you’ve even played it. This creates a sense of bodily awareness that helps with the process of memorisation, coordination and achieving speed.

Scales are more than sequenced notes

Did you know that scales develop your inner ear?

There is the simple fact that by playing scales you develop a good sense of major and minor (and other modal) music, but you also learn to listen for good tone and quality of sound.

Scales that are played with a weak sound or with a ‘loud thumb’ are often a result of students not engaging their ears.

Scales form basic theoretic building blocks of much of Western music.

Each scale is a musical world unto itself, and it’s worth exploring the various scales in and of themselves in a variety of creative encounters, be it through literature or through improvisation.

If you learn all your major and minor scales, plus all the very many other types of scales, you will have at your disposal an enormous musical alphabet with which to create and to understand music.

And even if you don’t want to improvise or compose, it’s MUCH less intimidating to play a piece of music that’s in F# major (with 6 sharps at the key signature) when the scales, chords and arpeggios of that key are firmly embedded in your fingers.

To Recap…

Scales are important because they can help you develop:

  • Your piano technique
  • Your awareness of keyboard geography
  • Your theoretic understanding of music
  • Your musical vocabulary
  • Your musical ear

In other words, scale practice can do a world of good and should be part and parcel of your daily practice after the early elementary levels.

It should also be noted that it will take a few years to fully learn all scales at advanced level speeds and it’s important not to try and rush it.

If you work your way through exams, for instance, you will not be asked to play scales at high speeds in the early grades. This is to facilitate a step by step, level by level approach to practising your scales so you are able to build your scale playing to high levels of competence in a gradual fashion.

If you were not a fan of playing scales before, I hope that this article may sway you to think of them in a different light and see the value of all those hours of running up and down the keyboard.

Next blog post I’ll give some practical tips on how you can VARY your scale practice so you not only keep engaged in your practice but so you can really deeply explore scales and make them your own.

Happy practising!

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