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Scaling the heights

9 years ago


Following an enthusiastic response to our call for advice on learning scales, we asked Anthony Williams to share his secrets with you.


As a young student the importance of scales eluded me.

Quote oneDespite my teacher's best efforts to make them interesting, examiners would always begin their general comments with: 'What a pity...'. Years later, after a period as a recitalist and being thrown in the deep end with demanding sight-reading accompaniments, I realised I could now play my scales quite well and how important they really were.

It then begged the question: how much quicker might I have achieved this ease of performance and sight reading if I had learnt my scales early on? I am convinced that, like stepping stones across a river, the route to the other side would have been much quicker if I'd taken the crossing rather than deliberately spent years looking for a place to jump across!

So why learn scales?

Quote twoPrimarily because they are the essential physical 'grammar' for playing tonal music on all instruments. If you know your scales and arpeggios in a key, your fingers will instinctively follow those patterns, chordal or scalic. When they encounter an accidental or two, or even a modulation they will follow the alternative scale pattern instinctively. This makes reading everything, except atonal music, much easier and it also takes little effort to traverse those awkward memory slips or difficult passages without informing the audience.

They can be frustrating and hard work at times, but are a shortcut to future progress. The secret is in finding interesting, imaginative and efficient strategies to help your students remember fingering patterns.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Stick to the same (and preferably widely accepted) fingering. Learn slowly and reinforce the patterns visually and physically in imaginative ways. The worst fingering is inconsistent and will result in a lot of 'unlearning' later on. It also makes memorising scales difficult.
  • Preface a piece by running through the key scale. This provides a useful orientation of shape and key relevant to the repertoire and is a good way of feeding scale work into a lesson.
  • Know all the 'anchor points' for your instrument. Remember which scales have particular idiosyncrasies. For instance on the piano, learn which scales have thumbs or fourth fingers going down together.
  • Try duets in lessons. Play along with your students in 3rds, 6ths and 10ths – this will ensure you practise your scales too, as well as demonstrating that you believe in them.
  • Make practising scales a musical experience. Vary the tempo and dynamics to create shapes and shading. The right tempo is the speed that allows musical direction, but much depends on the articulation and quality of sound. Metronome marks mean little and should not become an obsession at the expense of clarity or shape.
  • Accompany scales on the piano. Experiment with chord sequences to accompany your pupils or, for inspiration, look through any classical concertos and sonatas. Try out some of the harmonic sequences under the scalic passages and demand from your student the musical shape and direction you might expect in this context.
  • Try using jazz-groove accompaniments. This works well for a change of idiom. If you are technologically minded, you might also try recording or using music software to create backing tracks for your students to practise with at home.
  • Help your pupils organise their scales as exams approach to aid memory and confidence. You can do this by grouping similar scale patterns together or working on 'key notes' (for example, all scales and arpeggios beginning on F sharp). Try making a 'scale box' with flash cards – this helps a quick response to random requests.

Anthony is an ABRSM moderator, trainer and examiner and has been involved in the selection of exam pieces for ABRSM since 1999.

This article was originally featured in the May 2010 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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