The importance of establishing a technical regimen as a pianist cannot be overstated.
Although we may think of technical routines with more advanced students in mind, I recommend focusing on technical work right from the beginning.
How can we achieve a baseline technical proficiency before we learn how to play scales and arpeggios?
We can do this through etudes and pentascales.
This article is going to focus on the latter since pentascales (used in a variety of ways) can be taught within the first few weeks of study, or even during the first lesson.
Technical work is how we gain our proficiency in advanced repertoire.
We also get this proficiency from playing pieces, but technical work offers more specialization for the time spent. Pieces are not usually intended to train specific skills (for the most part). However, technical exercises are intended for this purpose.
They are often simple to learn but provide opportunity for students to become increasingly familiar with the keyboard and learn to recognize ubiquitous patterns that will be frequently encountered in repertoire.
In fact, I have tested many of his methods on my students and observed the results to be quite successful. I have still modified things a bit to suit my needs and my style of teaching but I wanted to give Mr. Mai credit for many of these ideas.
The pentascale is likely the first essential pattern that students will experience since so much music
written for beginners tends to be very 5-finger position based.
Because pentascales consist of 5 notes rather than 7, no shifting is required which allows students to learn these patterns very early on.
Pentascales can help students establish the beginnings of a technical foundation and pave the way for
more advanced technique. Studying these patterns in all the keys also helps students start to develop familiarity with the keys and their associated flats or sharps.
Keys such as D flat or G flat major look more difficult on paper than they really are in practice but often aren’t encountered until later stages of playing. Students really don’t need to wait to experience playing in these positions and you may find it helpful (as I have) to tear down the barriers of black key playing right away.
How to Introduce Pentascales
There are a few ways to introduce pentascales depending on how far along the student is.
- If the student is a total beginner, you may want to explain how scale degrees and whole/half steps work in a major pentascale. Since this pattern consists of whole steps except between scale degrees 3 and 4, you can show students how to build pentascales starting on any note.
- Students that understand the basics of reading can use notation to learn their patterns (although they should still be familiar with the whole/half step method).
As far as order of keys is concerned, that is largely up to what you are comfortable teaching with.
Many of the pentascales have similar physical patterns such as C/G, D/A, Db/Ab, and so on, so you could always teach them in sets until you have most of the patterns worked out.
Another approach is to do all the white keys left to right, or all the keys left to right (chromatic order). This approach is a bit harder to learn but significantly easier to practice and memorize,at least in my experience.
One thing I feel should be mentioned here is that students tend to learn these at different rates. Some
students might learn all their pentascales in a week or so, and some might take a few months.
Whatever a student can do, they should strive to do it well. Focus on quality over quantity, and then move on with the repetition and variations.
Repeated Note Variation
Students who are very young or have frequent finger collapsing can modify the standard pentascale by using repeated finger staccatos on each of the scale degrees. A finger staccato is simply an inward pull of the fingertip from the last knuckle/joint in the finger at a slight downward angle which engages the key.
The thumb acts similarly but pulls laterally and also slightly downward. I encourage students to think of
grabbing the notes when applying the finger staccato technique.
Each finger is pulled firmly but released immediately so that it can be quickly repeated. One rhythm that I’ve seen used very effectively consists of alternating patterns of 16th notes and 8th notes for each of the scale degrees of the pentascale.
The tempo should be slow, but the attack on each key should be very quick. For very young students, you can simply use quarter notes and rests.
Students who are willing to spend a couple minutes a day trying this exercise in a few different keys will develop a more rounded and efficient finger technique early on. They will even develop better
articulation on the 4th and 5th fingers compared to simply allowing them to push the keys down as they would normally.
Once the student is comfortable using finger staccatos, you can have them move to standard pentascales or other variations.
Alternating Fingers Variation
After students have the basic 5-finger pattern learned, you can use a variation of the pattern by
alternating between adjacent finger groups. I refer to this variation simply as alternating fingers on
To perform this exercise on the right hand, you will alternate fingers 1 and 2, then 3 and 4, and then 5
and 4, and lastly 3 and 2. The left-hand uses the inverse of this fingering. I typically have students repeat the alternating pattern a few times and repeat in all keys.
RH: 1212 3434 5454 3232 1 (or 12121212 34343434 54545454 32323232 1 for more repetition).
LH: 5454 3232 1212 3434 5
The idea behind alternating fingers is to isolate all possible finger groups related by step. This allows us to train the dexterity of the weaker fingers while reducing the likelihood that pupils will leave fingers pressed down on the keys.
Another way you could use this exercise is to alternate between all possible finger groups (rather than just adjacent ones) or use finger staccatos on every note. Feel free to modify this system for your purposes.
I recommend beginning this exercise after students are fluent with the regular patterns.
Encourage hands separate practice while counting out loud or using the metronome to develop very even playing.
The goal here is not speed so much as much as clarity, evenness, and fluency in all the keys.
What Comes After Pentascales?
After students are skilled at pentascales in several keys, they can move on to more specialized 5 finger studies such as the Schmitt preparatory exercises.
One important goal here is solid preparation for scale and arpeggio playing; books such as these can help with that.
Once students have begun working on one octave scales, they can dispense with the pentascales.
However, the Schmitt exercises will remain relevant for a while since they offer benefits outside of what scales and arpeggios can offer.
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