As a beginning piano student, I was never interested in practicing scales, and I know I wasn’t the only one. In fact, it wasn’t until after studying piano in college that I came to fully appreciate the art of playing scales smoothly and cleanly.

Looking back, I think that I would have had a different experience with scales had I learned a progressive approach to mastering them, as opposed to tackling them incorrectly with lots of frustration.

Luckily, over the years I’ve developed a method for myself and my students that successfully promotes proper technique and appreciation for the exercise of practicing scales which directly translates to the ability to effortlessly execute them within the piano repertoire.

In order to begin practicing scales, a student must have already mastered proper hand position and generally playing with strong, independent fingers.

An important way to teach this is to have the student practice legato 5-finger Pentascales (i.e. C-D-E-F–G) in many different positions until ready to add in the thumb-under and 3rd finger-over techniques used in the one-octave major scale.

During this introductory step, make sure the student’s thumbs are always played on the side, lifted and dropped from the thumb muscles, and never with added arm weight or movement.

Once the student has mastered playing 5-finger Pentascales with proper technique, then the thumb-under technique can be introduced by using the ascending C major scale in the right hand.

There are six steps to this:

1. Have the student place the right hand in C Position and play the 3rd finger on E. Show how to swivel the thumb under the arched hand position while holding down E and without moving the arms or elbow.

Then have the student put the thumb down on F and immediately create a new F position of all white notes, resting all fingers in the position but only playing F.

2. Have the student practice this motion from E to F repeatedly, going from a C Position to an F Position.

3. Now have the student play up the scale in C Position, starting with C, and immediately after letting go of the thumb to play 2nd finger on D, show how to swivel under the arched hand position to get ready to play the F underneath, even as D and E are played.

(This prepares from the beginning how to eventually play faster scales without jarring motions.)

Then after playing E, have the student drop the thumb on F and immediately fall into F Position (Still just playing C-D-E-F).

4. Have the student practice C-D-E-F like this repeatedly, always observing the hand and arm position.

5. Now the student is ready to complete the scale by doing step #4, then when in F Position, playing 1-2-3-4-5 up to C.

6. Practice this with the student until it is smooth and even with no jarring movements or louder notes.

Once this is mastered, it can be translated to the left hand in mirror image, starting from thumb on C and descending the one-octave C major scale.

Next is the slightly easier technique of crossing the 3rd finger over for the ascending left hand scale.

Here are the six steps:

1. Have the student place the left hand in C Position and play the thumb on G. Show how to cross the 3rd finger over the anchored thumb as a pivot without moving the arms or elbow.

Then have the student put the 3rd finger down on A and immediately create a new F position of all white notes, resting all fingers in the position but only playing A.

2. Have the student practice this motion from G to A repeatedly, going from a C Position to an F Position.

3. Now have the student play up the scale in C Position, 5-4-3-2-1, and after playing thumb on G, have the student cross the 3rd finger over the thumb and immediately fall into F Position playing A (Still just playing C-D-E-F-G-A).

4. Have the student practice C-D-E-F-G-A like this repeatedly, always observing the hand and arm position.

5. Now the student is ready to complete the scale by doing step #4, then when in F Position, playing 3-2-1 up to C.

6. Practice this with the student until it is smooth and even with no jarring movements or louder notes.

Finally, once this is mastered, it can be translated to the right hand in mirror image, starting with the 5th finger on C and descending the one-octave C major scale.

I have found that this is the best way to ensure that students practice scales correctly from the beginning, and once it is learned in C major, all the other major and minor scales become much easier!

It’s fun to amaze them by showing how fast, smooth, clean scales look and sound, then telling them that they are now on the way to playing impressive scales themselves.

[The next step is to play hands together, one octave, and then they can learn all 12 major scale fingerings this way. I look forward to showing my process of teaching this in Part 2 of How to Teach Proper Scale Technique!]


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