5 professional tips on how to nail your scales

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By Ellie Palmer

18 June 2018

5 professional tips for executing your scales to perfection

These 5 professional tips will apply to every single level of pianist, and every single type of scale. Scales are a very undervalued exercise. For some of us, it can be a chore; an exercise you just have to do in order to pass your exam. In reality, scales are quite literally the basis of all our piano learning. They develop your:

  • Fingering
  • Natural sense of tempo
  • Knowledge of multiple keys and intervals
  • Level of discipline when it comes to practising

 

All of these factors will be needed when practising our repertoire. With that being said, we’ve put together 5 crucial pieces of advice for you to consider when practising your scales. Whether you’re grade 1 or grade 8 - and whether you’re practising single hand contrary motion, or two hands dominant 7th scales - these 5 tips will apply to every single level of pianist, and every single type of scale.

 

1. Tempo

Each scale has a required tempo for you to perform them in. Grade 1 contrary motion scales request a speed of 66bpm, whereas Grade 7 contrary motions scales request a speed of 80bpm. Each individual type of scale has its own speed. With that in mind, practising to a metronome is key to getting as close to these speeds as possible. Start off at a very steady pace, around 30-40bpm. As you become more familiar with the notes and rhythms in the scale, increase your speed until you reach the bpm required of your grade. Not sure what the required speed of your grade is? Click here to see what ABRSM say.

The more you practice with a metronome, the more that the desired tempo will stick in your head. When it comes to performing your scales in your exam, you’ll be able to naturally play them in the desired tempo.

 

2. Fingering

Fingering supports natural fluent scale playing. Here is Melanie Spanswick - classical pianist, teacher, writer and composer – talking about the importance of scale fingering.

“Many pianists (pupils, amateurs and professionals) like to invent their own fingering, but scale and arpeggio fingerings are there for a reason. This is especially true of arpeggios, where I find fourth fingers in the left hand to be imperative (see the example below of a C major arpeggio in the left hand).                                                                                                 

If you play this passage with a third finger on the second, fifth, ninth, and twelfth note, E (instead of the suggested fourth), you are immediately making your hand movement more awkward whereas with the fourth finger, this position is entirely natural as it’s in the shape the chord is usually played. Whereas in the second example below, which is in the key of D major, a third finger is preferable and more comfortable because of the addition of the F sharp.

So, it does all depend on the shape or rather key of the scale or arpeggio. Fingering should support natural fluent scale playing.”

 

3. Practice in chunks

This is a brilliant tip from Warren McPherson, a professional musician and highly successful YouTube piano teacher.

Warren advises that pianists practice their scales in small chunks. “No more than 3 keys each day. Make it a daily exercise. Make it a part of your routine. The morning is a great time to practice as you’ll feel refreshed and rested. Take 10-15 minutes per day and assign that to scale practice only.”

Practising every single scale in one sitting can slow down your learning. Learning in small chunks is the key to successful scale practice. 

 

4. Practice chromatically

Key Notes, who offer professional online music education, suggest practising chromatically rather than through the circle of fifths.

This is a brilliant tip for those who, like many of us, love to practice the ‘easy’ scales first and leave the hard scales to the last minute. Practising in the circle of fifths means you get through the nice, easy C G D A E B scales before reaching the more challenging keys...which can be detrimental to our learning! If anything, we want to get into the habit of practising the difficult keys in and around the easier keys. This way, we will be fully prepared for anything when it comes to the exam. Work chromatically and you won’t be tempted to leave the more difficult scales until the end.

 

5. Add some creativity to your practice

One of the main reasons that some pianists see scales as a chore is because there is no creativity involved in practising them. Our brains crave to create. When it comes to taking your piano exam, you are not able to play your scales with your own interpretation, because the examiners themselves request the style they’d like you to play it in. However, there is nothing stopping us adding some creativity into our practice if it helps us to develop quicker! British concert pianist Jonathan Plowright explains here how we can add some flair to our practice.

“When practising scales, play each hand with a different touch (e.g. play one hand staccato, the other legato). Try emphasizing the third beat of every bar when it would be normally on the second, change the shape of your phrases, try playing it at double speed – play musical games with yourself.

"In unison, fast semiquaver scales – try crossed hands both ways. This forces the left hand to stop being a passenger, and become a leader, therefore becoming stronger and more independent. This is where playing scales in this way comes in handy!"

 

Preparing for an exam? Here are 8 tips on how to get rid of nerves before your piano exam.