METHOD OF PRACTISING SCALES
The worst way is to ripple through them over and over again (hands together) while you think about your holidays in the Caribbean.
The best way is to have a very clear aim when practising scales and use a variety of approachs to achieve that aim.
Also use the water-boiling approach. If you are going to boil water, you must keep it on the fire until it boils. If you turn the fire off before it boils it doesn’t. Ever. So if you have a lot of water to boil is far more efficient to distribute it in small pans on several fires. So plan your practice (of everything, not only scales) so that you achieve your goals within a practice session of, say, 10 minutes. You will not learn all 24 scales (or a piece) in such a short session, but you will master an aspect of the scale, (or a bar of the piece). Then you make sure to have a master plan so that the small goals add up to the big goal. This requires very good planning, lots of discipline and day-to-day consistency. One month of this disciplined approach will bring awesome results.
So for scales, I do not believe in scales as technical exercises, but you must know them. So here are some variations, in the order I do them and teach them (they add up to greater things in due time):
Start with the 12 major scales:
1. One finger only, one octave, hands separate. Play the scale and say the notes you are playing aloud. Then do it again this time say the interval between notes aloud (e.g. major scales: Tone – Tone – semitone - Tone – Tone – Tone – semitone or major 2nd – major2nd – minor 2nd – major 2nd – major 2nd – major 2nd – minor 2nd). Goal: to know the notes of the scales. To name black keys and white keys as sharps/flats (e.g, in Gb major, the white key we usually think of as B is in fact a Cb), to get familiarised with counting semitones (an important skill that will come in handy when you are studying the different intervals in theory) and to spot straightaway the difference between major and minor seconds.
In the beginning, do one single scale per day (or even per week). Do not move to the next scale until you have completely saturated yourself with the one you are working on. It should take only a couple of minutes. Soon you will become master of one scale (consistent repetition is a sure fire way - but no one wants to do it. Everyone expects to learn by magic). Then move on to the next scale. You should know all the 12 major scales (as far as notes are concerned) in 2 – 3 weeks (at the most – some people can do it all in one day). Once you know all the 12 major scales, you should be able to go through them in 2 – 3 minutes.
If you are in a hurry, do all the 12 major scales in one day in 12 different sessions of 2 – 3 minutes. Once you finish your 2 – 3 minutes on one scale, forget about it completely until the next day. Do not try to make relationships between the several scales (yet). It will slow down the learning process. Concentrate on one and only one scale per practise session. Trust that it will add up and in the end you will be able to establish all relationships you always dreamed of.
Once you are confident you really know all 12 major scales over one octave (as far as notes and intervals are concerned), move on to play the scales with all fingers over two octaves, hands separate. Again, stay at this level for as long as needed to completely master it. Now you do not need to do the previous practice since this one will incorporate it.
2. All fingers, two octaves, hands separate: again just one scale per practice session (which should not last more than 2 – 3 minutes). Goal: to learn and ingrain the fingering, to keep reinforcing the notes (but by now you should know them back to front). To master a specific movement, namely, the movement that allows you to play scales slow/medium speed legato. Pass the thumb under. The best scale to start is B major, since in this scale the finger position is the most natural. At this stage play the scales in this sequence: B major, Db major, Gb major (fingering and scales are the same, you only need to change the white notes), then follow the circle of fifths in both directions (G – F / D – Bb / A – Eb / E – Ab). As before, do one scale per practice session, but soon you will be proficient enough to go through all of them in one single practice session of 2 – 3 minutes.
3. Next you are going to master a way/movement to play scales at fast speed. Now you must pass the thumb over (or displace the hand laterally). We are still working on separate hands (far more important than hands together for several reasons). This time play the notes of the scales in clusters (or chords), playing together (as a chord) fingers 123 and then displacing laterally the hand to play (as a chord) fingers 1234. Do this over one octave, then over two octaves, then over three and finally over four octaves. This will really improve your visual appraisal of the scale pattern of black/white keys over the entire keyboard. It will also explain the difficulty of playing scales fast: fingers 123 and 1234 can play fast no problem (what could be fast than together?) It is going from 3 to 1 and from 4 to 1 that will slow you down. So isolate this displacement movement and work on it separately. The main problem is to be fast and accurate, but you will never be as fast here as in fingers 123 or 1234. So this is the only limit to the speed you will play any scale. Later on you will need to slow down 123 and 1234 to the fastest you can play 3-1 and 4-1 in order to make the scale sound even. But for the moment, your goals at this stage are visual patterning of the keyboard for each scale, investigation of the displacement movement and getting used to the arm moving and accurately positioning the hand/fingers. This is very different form the previous stage, where the passing under of the thumb leads one naturally to use the fingers rather than the arms for placement and position.
You must keep working at both steps 2 and steps 3.
4. Now you are going to do no. 3 again, but this time you will “separate” the thumb. That is you play: 1 (alone) 23 (as a chord) 1 (alone) 234 (as a chord). You can do this in two ways (and you must do both): displacing the hand laterally (passing the thumb over) and passing the thumb under. Observer carefully the movement patterns you must do in order to accomplish each of these movements. You will see/hear/feel quite clearly why it is impossible to play fast scales with the thumb under. You will also se/feel/hear why playing with the thumb under is necessary for slow legato playing of scales.
5. Now that you have informed yourself of notes, fingerings, movements and pattern recognition for all the 12 major scales, you go back to play them normally (still hands separate) over four octaves. Play them slowly and legato with the appropriate movements and fast, again with the appropriate movements. From time to time remind yourself of the movements by going over again items 3 and 4. Playing all the 12 major scales in less than 2 – 3 minutes should be easy. If not, have that as your goal. Do not rush, it is more important to fully master one single scale than to rush through and be sloppy in all of them. Also remember that you can split your task throughout the day in 2 – 3 minutes sessions. It is not a good idea to spend a continuous hour on scales, It is far better to have twenty 3 minutes sessions throughout the day (e.g. every time there is an advert on TV go to the piano and do a session).
6. Now you should start doing variations. Over four octaves (hands separate) play the scales with rhythm variations (fast-slow and slow-fast), accent variations (accent every other note, accent every three notes, starting with note 1, then note 2 then note 3, then accent every fourth note) articulation variations (staccato, legato, detached), dynamic variations, and perhaps the most interesting, cantabile variations: create a melodic line within the scale by accenting certain notes. You should be able to clearly bring out the melody with the rest of the scale notes in the background.
7. Still with hands separate, play each major scale starting on a different note (but keeping the same fingering – e.g., play C major, but start on D with finger 2. Then start on E with finger 3 and so on). This is really playing the seven modes.
8. Finally, (still with separate hands), play through all the 12 major scales in the order of the cycle of fifths, and also in a chromatic order. You should also be able to play any of the 12 major scales chosen in a random order. You are now ready to join hands.
9. Joining hands will be a nightmare because of the co-ordination. The fastest way to overcome this is by playing the scale hands together in groups of notes, overlapping the groups. This is a long practice session (it will take anything from 20 minutes to one hour), so brace yourself. The good news is that you only need to do this once (or maybe twice) for each scale. Then you will know your scale hands together forever (even if you do not practise it ever again). This is how you do it (I will show over one octave, but you have to do it over two octaves).C Major:
a) Play, hands together, correct fingers the notes CD hundreds of times (since it is only two notes, you can do several hundred times in 1 – 2 minutes). Until it becomes easy and automatic. Move on to DE. Then EF (difficult for the RH hand, easy for the LH – so you will probably need to spend more time on these two notes). Then FG. Then GA (difficult for LH, easy for RH), AB and finally BC.
b) Now do three notes, spending more time on the difficult sequences: CDE – DEF – EFG – GAB – ABC
c) Four notes: CDEF – DEFG – EFGA – FGAB – GABC
d) Five notes: CDEFG – DEFGA – EFGAB – FGABC
e) Six notes: CDEFGA – DEFGAB – EFGABC
f) And last but not least seven notes: CDEFGAB – DEFGABC
g) You should now be able to play the scale perfectly hands together over one octave. Extend the system for two octaves. You don’t need to do it for more than two octaves, since the other octaves will take care of themselves.
10. Now, just like you did with separate hands you must do all sorts of variations. Do all the ones you did for separate hands, and add these ones:
a) Play the scale in contrary movement.
b) Play the scale in counterpoint: One hand plays two octaves, the other hand one octave at half the speed. Alternate hands
c) Play one scale (e.g. G major) with the right hand and a different scale (e.g. B major) with the left hand. This will really show you how ironclad your fingering is.
d) Play the scale with the hands a third apart, a sixth apart, a tenth apart (and since you are at it, why not do all the other intervals as well?)
e) Play the scale with crossed hands (RH plays the bass, LH plays the treble). Experiment with one hand on the top of the other and then reverse.
11. Now you must start making a connection between the scales and the pieces you are playing. Identify the key of your piece and any modulation. Practise together with your piece the scales of the keys you identified in your piece.
12. If your piece has a characteristic rhythm, practice your scales in that rhythm pattern.
13. If your piece has a defined accompaniment in the left hand (e.g a waltz), play the appropriate scales on the RH instead of the original melody of the piece. This will allow you not only to practise both the scale and the LH of your piece as it will be an eyes (ear?) opener on how Western tonal music is all organised around scales. It will also show you straight away if got the harmonic progressions correct (if you have not the scale will not fit.)
14. Improvise by having a standard chord progression on the LH (e.g. C – A – F – G – C) and doing scales in different rhythm patterns on the RH. You are allowed to repeat notes, but you must follow the scale order (no skips and no missing notes). Start by having a set rhythm pattern. As your facility progress you will be able to freely improvise the rhythm.
15. Now you must do the same for the 12 minor scales.
16. In parallel with this work at the piano, spend some time (again no more than a few minutes) writing down the scales and key signatures on music paper. (This will also improve your sight reading).
17. Always start to learn a new piece away from the piano by identifying the scales and keys in it.
Are you tired yet? Remember you are not supposed to do all that in one evening but in the course of two – three years. To complete this plan is your long term goal. Now organise in small chunks on your daily practise and make sure it will all add up in a couple of years time. Consistency is the key.
Finally: Treat arpeggios the same way.
Then try other scales (pentatonic, whole tone, chromatic, blues, etc.)