Why practicing scales and arpeggios is important and strategies for teaching them.
Most piano students don't enjoy practicing scales, but there are some things teachers can do to make them more enjoyable. Here are three strategies to use when teaching scales and arpeggios to students.
1. Explain the Value of Scales and Arpeggios
Remember the scene in The Karate Kid when Daniel gets fed up with Mr. Miaggi because he thinks he's just doing a bunch of chores for him? "Wax on, wax off". What Mr. Miaggi didn't explain to Daniel was that he was learning foundational skills. They need many, many repetitions so that they became automatic. Practicing scales and arpeggios are just like "waxing on and waxing off"! They are the building blocks of music and, if you look at any musical score, you will find scales and arpeggios everywhere. Knowing your scales and arpeggios will make playing and reading music so much easier because the foundational skills are automatic. If you explain the value of scales and arpeggios to your students, they will be much more likely to put in the time to learn them.
2. Present Scales and Arpeggios in Manageable Steps
I resisted practicing scales as a young piano student because playing a full octave, hands together was difficult. I was taught to begin with my scale, and it's never a good idea to begin a practice session with something difficult. 5-finger scales are a good first step in learning scales because students can learn them more quickly and easily. It is less likely for students to become overwhelmed by the fingering patterns because they are always the same. By practicing 5-finger scales, students will develop dexterity and a strong sense of rhythm before attempting a full octave scale.
When teaching scales I always begin with the key of C and progress around the circle of 5ths: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb. This sequence is important because the fingering patterns are the same for the first six scales. The student will become comfortable with playing hands together before being asked to learn the different fingering patterns required for scales that begin on black keys. The sequence also allows the student become comfortable with scales before learning about enharmonic notes.
I teach scales and arpeggios together because it reinforces key signature and lays the foundation for learning chords. Below is a progression that I use to teach scales and arpeggios that gradually increases in difficulty and challenges the student at each level. Once the major keys have been mastered, the minor keys can be learned in the same way.
1. 5-Finger Scales and Arpeggios
2. 1-Octave Scales and Arpeggios
3. 2-Octave Scales and Arpeggios
4. Full Keyboard Scales and Arpeggios
5. 1-Octave Combination Form Scales and Arpeggios (up, out, in, down)
6. 2-Octave Combination Form Scales and Arpeggios
7. Full Keyboard Combination Form
This progression will keep your students challenged, give them speed, flexibility, and a solid understanding of key signature.
3. Make Scales and Arpeggios Into a Game
If the teacher approaches scales as a game, students should be more receptive to practicing them. I compare learning scales to solving a puzzle or completing a maze. The student is in competition with himself. Below is a list of activities that can make learning and playing scales more fun and less tedious.
"Rocket Scales": I borrowed this idea from my son's "rocket math". When he was learning his math facts, he was given a sheet of 100 math facts and one minute to fill in as many facts as possible. Over time, the number of facts he could complete in one minute increased because his skill was increasing. Rocket scales can work similarly. With rocket scales, the student sets a tempo and must play the scale with no mistakes. Once the scale is mastered at the goal tempo, the student can set a new goal at a faster tempo.
"Copy-cat": The teacher plays a pattern within the scale and the student repeats it by ear. Then, reverse roles with the student playing the pattern and the teacher repeating it.
Duets: Teachers can use the I and the V chords of the given scale to create an accompaniment to play as the student plays the scale. This is helpful for fine tuning a sense of rhythm and it can be fun to explore varying styles of music. (Take a look at Nancy and Randall Faber's "Scale and Chord Book 1" for an example of scale duets.)
Improvisation: Using the duet activity above can also work for improvisation. By improvising within the given key, the student becomes even more familiar with the scale and the key signature. It takes a higher level of skill to master improvisation. (Examples of improvisation are also in the Faber's "Scale and Chord Book 1".)
Our students deserve the best musical education that we can give them. That means they need to learn their scales and arpeggios. They are an essential piece of learning to play the piano. Using these strategies will make mastering scales and arpeggios approachable for any student at any level.