I am going deeper into “scale” with my more advanced students in the Development Levels and in Accompaniment 2. Having come from a very extensive classical musical training, I understand scale, key signature, and advanced theory.
However, a student has asked me, and I ask myself, “why scale? why does a musician need to practice scales?” In my college student days, I practiced scale for an hour out of my 5 hours of practice per day–on violin–so I understand what it did for me on a practical and experiential knowledge-kind-of-basis, but I’m not so sure I can articulate why it would be a necessary addition to a SM piano students’ playlist!?
I have heard vague answers to this question, mostly to the tune of “it helps with jazz and improvisation.” Are there separate answers to this question if answering a student who wants a career as a classical or jazz pianist vs. someone who wants to play piano casually for the rest of their lives?
My 62 year old Level 13 student (and I!) would love to hear more perspectives on “why scale?” (…as we struggle to play even C major fluently with hands together up and down the breath of the piano with the correct fingering!!)
Gordon Harvey, Australia
My short answer to this would be that in SM we don’t practice scale. Certainly, we don’t play scales as any kind of drill or repetitive exercise. At least I don’t remember anything in the Teacher Training suggesting we do, and I’ve never had students practice scale. Here’s a quick summary of the scale-related activities I typically do with students:
• Processing key maps – the focus of this is to see the maps laid out across the keyboard, and is thus not to actually do with playing, but instead about developing a visual familiarity with what each key looks like on the keyboard.
• Naturally occurring 3’s and 4’s – this is about establishing a familiarity with appropriate fingering when playing a passage of music in steps. So it relates to “correct” fingering for a scale, but is not about playing scales for the sake of playing scales. It’s just that there are lots of times when pieces of music include scale-related passages, and there may be lots of times when you might play scale steps when you’re improvising. However, I don’t think that this skill is sufficiently important that we need to spend time with structured exercises. I have students play around with this until they are reasonably familiar with it in each key.
• Navigating – this is the process of quickly and easily finding your way back to the naturally occurring 3’s and 4’s when you’re out of the “correct” position. For example, you might want to play upwards in scale steps in the key of three flats starting from finger 1 on G in your RH. The “correct” fingering would be finger 2 on G, but because of what you’ve just played, you’re on 1 instead. So it’s helpful to find a way of getting back to the naturally occurring fingering to help minimize confusion. This kind of situation will occur all the time in real life.
• Improvising and composing – I think the best way to process keys is to do it in a musical way, so I do things like giving a student a simple LH pattern and have them improvise in the key with their RH. It will often sound great, especially if your LH notes are well-chosen, and often it can be a great springboard for a composition that can further explore the key. Just today I had a student come back with a lovely melody over a two-note pattern in the key she was processing that week. I was able to make a couple of suggestions including moving the LH to a new position to provide the basis for a complementary melody, which also allowed us to explore how I IV V is connected with key.
Most of the above is largely about becoming familiar with the landscape of a key, and for that reason, amongst others, I eschew the word “scale” whenever the word “key” can be applied. This avoids the common association of the word “scale” with drudgery, and also with seeing scale in a linear way. Most people who know a little about scales think of them as series of notes going up and down the keyboard with specific beginning and ending points, typically used as an exercise. This to me is a limited perspective that can obscure the bigger picture of key. I don’t talk about scale in a linear way at all until quite late, and even then not as an exercise. Learning key and scale as tools for understanding that you can apply in practical ways can be achieved without extensive drills.
Extensive drills may be useful for the serious classical or jazz musician, but avoiding them is a compromise I’m happy to make for the usual SM student. Their skills could possibly be improved further with drills, but unless they have a lot of time on their hands, the downsides outweigh the benefits. One major benefit of scales (as I understand it) is for general finger training. In SM much of this kind of benefit is provided by maintaining a strong Playlist.
If you still want answers to “Are there separate answers to this question if answering a student who wants a career as a classical or jazz pianist”, I may not be the best person to answer, but drop me a line off the ECL and I’ll see who might be able to help.
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
The natural tendency when we hear the word SCALE is to think of ‘playing scales’. The SM approach is much more organic. I like the way Neil puts it – scale is the DNA of music.
I think language provides a great analogy again. We’re familiar with the analogy of learning to speak before learning to read and spell, and applying that to how we teach music. To take it a step further, once we have learned to read and spell, then we can learn grammar and sentence structure (although that gets a lot less attention than it used to!).
I see scale like grammar – it’s all about understanding the structure of music. What makes sense in terms of how the language flows? What are some of the “rules” generally followed? What are the exceptions to the rules? An understanding of the structure helps us communicate on a more sophisticated level, whether through spoken language or music.
It also helps us understand the music we’ve already learned – but on a deeper level. We need an understanding of scale in order to really ‘get’ how chords are built. Understanding the structure of chords opens all kinds of doors in terms of what we are able to do with a lead sheet, for example. Then we can be much more self-generative as a musician. It’s SO cool to see a class have “AHA!” moments all over the place once they begin to understand how music is structured. Really exciting to me, because I find scale fascinating. (Do I sound like a nerd, or what?)
So….I guess one answer to your question could be “To become a more confident, sohisticated, self-generative musician by means of understanding the very structure of music.”
Before simply music I had my students regularly use scales and hannon drills for finger exercise. I also taught the circle of fifths a bit differently in order for students to understand scales a bit better. Another thing I used was a very interesting book called Howard’s super sight reading secrets. Apart from being a great sight reading guide, it also had scale exercises that used the black keys for students to learn a “2 thumb, 3 thumb” pattern.
It had the student play this in sync so both hands are doing the exact same thing. I think the whole point of playing scales with different fingering (traditional style) was just to get the fingers used to playing independently of each other. But using the black keys as the template and having the student play both hands in sync made transitioning to different fingering much much easier. I just told them to remember this rhyme “2 on 2 and 3 on 3, thumbs on F and C”.
Understanding how scales work within the framework of a song gives a good template for kids to understanding key signatures.
By using the C major scale as a template you can see how all major keys will generally work in a song. You have a major, minor 2nd, minor 3rd, major 4th, major 5th, minor 6th, diminished 7th.
Once a child understands that, I have them pick any song, figure out what key it’s in, and then find this pattern within the song structure. It almost always works. Sometimes a song will have a major 2nd or a major 3rd to be musically a bit different, but generally you will find the pattern to be consistent in most songs. This is why I tell students that the key signature is not telling you the notes that are to be flatted or sharp, rather it’s telling you what the chords are going to be in that song. Then they begin to see what scales are all about.
Mark S., Tennessee
When I move my students into studying scales and cadences, I let them know that these exercises are habituating the student into choosing the correct fingerings, almost as second nature, especially when improvising.
I explain that there are the 5 steps of sound / 5 fingers on 5 white notes as your foundation stone principal.
Then when doing Cadences, the fingering follows the logic of the construction of the hand:
There is a “space” between the thumb and finger #2. Therefore, when doing cadences you will see that the fingerings proscribed follow the logic of keeping the 4 fingers with one per white note, and the thumb able to extend over two notes.
With arpeggios, I personally prefer the 5-3-2-1-2-3-5 sequences with LH, rather than the 5-4-2-1-2-4-5 as proscribed in many scale, chord and arpeggio books for LH.
Same with cadences. I don’t know if my traditional teacher, whom I highly respect, taught me to do this, or if I wanted to use this fingering and she allowed it.
Does anyone else have input on this? I suggest my way, but allow the student to choose the book’s fingerings if they prefer and it’s more sensible for them.
Re: your 62-year-old — Why? Excellent brain/ eye/hand/neuro training and coordination; good for keeping young. As one becomes somewhat proficient, the scales & cadences provide a kind of “spiritual practice” — a form of prayer and devotion, if you will. Experiencing the order of the Universe, much like playing some of Bach’s Anna Magdalena portfolio. These spiritual rituals can be soothing in times of outside stress and upheaval.
Patti P., Hawaii
I think the simplest explanation regarding scales is that music is basically made up of scales or scale fragments and chords, and the better you can play both, the easier it is to play and understand the pieces you play.
I completely rebelled against note-reading but scales are the one thing I practiced willingly in order to become aware of my options for major and minor sounds in every key. I have found them incredibly effective in improvising and composing as my fingers glide through and between chords. And since many different chords share the same notes, playing scales with sympathetic chords at various experimental timings, usually adds a very fluid and original sounding ambiance to the backdrop. Scales also build finger dexterity which allows for easy play of notes that one wants to “get to” at will. My best playing seems to emerge when I use partial scales and intuitively go up and down different parts of the scale, rather than rigidly playing them in the exact “full order” of notes; I’ll choose 3 notes in a row, 4 notes, 6 notes; just really depends on what I want to express at the moment.
Robin Keehn, Washington
I have been reading a lot of the responses about scale. I’d just like to say that formal introduction of scale and the theory of scale and key signature is not appropriate for the students in the lower levels of the Simply Music program. We specifically say in the Free Introductory Session that “learning scales is not the way we get fingers moving. We learn to play by playing songs. Playing songs is much more fun. Songs have a beginning, middle and an end.” I am going to stand by that. I never focus on playing scales. What I’ve found to be much more effective until somewhere into Time For More Music (after Reading Rhythm and Reading Notes), is to have students become very proficient in accompaniment.
Learning to play all the chords in all the keys with three basic shapes is amazing. Just think of what students learn in terms of theory by learning all types of chords in all the keys. Its also amazing to think that they learn to transpose so early and so easily. The great thing is that they are playing music, playing songs and developing accompaniment skills while learning all of this. With that solid foundation of accompaniment, it is easy to start looking at scale–or key families (whatever you prefer to call it).
I like to start by asking my students to play the I, IV and V in the key of C. We make a list of every note played and we have just discovered the C key family. We can do that for every key. You can really do this at any point in the curriculum–there is no set time for introducing this concept. My students see how easy it is to discover what belongs in each key family. It is an easy conversation to have. It is casual and practical and a fun discovery. I never add any theory to it. I just say, “Check this out–you can find out all the notes that belong together by playing the I, IV and V in the key of G (or whatever).” That’s it.
When we are working in Time for More Music, it is appropriate to begin having more conversations about scale. Again, it is directly related to pieces that we are learning and only as much information as they need to process the piece. As we look at a piece, we do scale mapping. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic. To summarize, we always look at key families from the same starting point (c, d, e, f, g, a, b). We put the LH fingers 4, 3 and 2 on the c, d and e. We put RH fingers 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the f, g, a, and b. We do this so we can cover all seven notes. It has nothing to do with treble clef and bass clef or LH, RH. We just want to see the pattern that emerges for each key. For example, in the key with 3 flats, we would move our fingers so that we have the Bb, Eb and Ab. If you look at where your left hand fingers are, they make a shape. Look at your RH fingers are and they also make a shape. The shape for the LH looks like this:
__/ (c, d and Eb)
RH looks like this __/““ (f, g, Ab and Bb)
Once your students see this pattern and how it covers the entire keyboard, it will help them see what notes they are playing in that particular key and piece. The natural 3s, and 4s refer to how fingers in the RH and in the LH fall rather naturally over these notes. Most people have similar fingerings but I never insist that certain fingers must be used. I never require students to play scales. I personally don’t see a need for it (yes, I grew up playing scales–all the way through college). I want them to know how to navigate their way but I think that playing pieces in different key signatures (with that solid foundation of accompaniment) is more fun and just as or more productive.
Finally, I want to be very careful about not adding a bunch of theory and explanations to what I’m teaching. My goal is that students play the piano expressively and confidently, are capable of accompanying, improvising, composing, can read whatever is put in front of them, and have a joyful experience. I never add a bunch of information about theory. My philosophy is that if explaining something actually opens a musical door, I’ll do it. If I cannot make a direct link to exactly what we are doing at the piano, I don’t say anything. Really, another goal I have is to say as little as I can when I’m teaching–you wouldn’t know it from this email.
I hope that helps a bit. Please feel free to email me if you have questions.