Many students of the piano hate practicing scales and arpeggios. Big surprise there... I would rather jump off a cliff than practice scales the way they're normally taught.
So put that shit away and try a totally new approach. You can benefit from these exercises.
In this article, I will address some common questions about scales and arpeggios. I will also describe a sequence of exercises that will change the way you look at scales (if you do it seriously!).
Why practice scales and arpeggios?
Scales are easy to remember. They contain several core difficulties in piano playing. They are like kata in martial arts: basic building blocks. If you have mastered them at high speed, it is pretty safe to say that you have certain elements of piano technique under your control (muscle memory). If you have not mastered them, then you know what you need to work on. Fast playing cannot happen without this mastery.
Can’t you get all these benefits just from practicing repertoire? Yes, but…repertoire is too interesting. It’s too musical. It tends to suck you into its own world. For this reason, it can actually be harder to focus on the elements of repertoire that would benefit you technically, because you are so lost in the music. The most interesting thing about scales and arpeggios is the technique, and this is precisely why they are helpful.
I think scales are fun and relaxing to play. It's easy to get absorbed into them (which is exactly where you want to be absorbed when you are doing technical work).
So far, I have talked mainly about the physical benefits of learning scales. However, there are a few other benefits worth mentioning, especially for beginners:
- Scales will help you learn all of the key signatures, which will help with sight-reading.
- Scales with varying combinations of white and black keys will help familiarize you with keyboard geography and fingering.
- Scales will help you play repertoire, especially that of the Classical period, that uses a lot of…scales.
- Practicing all of the major and minor scales will help with learning improvisation.
When you look at the complete picture, scales and arpeggios are quite important to the development of a pianist.
Before you sit down to practice scales, ask yourself "why am I practicing scales?"
Make sure you have an answer to this question before practicing. If you can't answer it, don't practice scales!
Why are scales and arpeggios so boring?
Scales are not boring. The way you are practicing them is boring. You need to approach them differently, if you want to make them interesting.
Many teachers will recommend playing scales in more complex patterns or rhythms, in order to mix things up. I’m not even suggesting that. Instead, I am asking you to play the same patterns you are playing now (or that you stopped playing, out of boredom), but to add some curiosity to them.
How much awareness can you bring to the way you are playing? What do they feel like physically? Are they easy, or hard? How “correct” are they?
Can you ask these questions without trying to improve your playing? If you take an interest in what you are doing, it might become interesting.
How can I enjoy practicing scales and arpeggios if I'm not good at them?
It is understandable that you wouldn’t want to practice something you aren’t good at. But, what is the point of practicing? Is it to only work on what you can do flawlessly?
If you aren’t good at scales, what else aren’t you good at? Is it possible that spending more time on scales might help you improve in other areas? If not, don’t bother.
Are you avoiding something only because it is uncomfortable? Or, is it really a waste of time? Use your own experience to guide you.
You can get better at scales, if you put in the time.
Try to embrace the fact that you aren't playing scales and arpeggios the way you'd like to be playing them. This doesn't inherently have to be a bad thing. It's just how things are.
Remind yourself why you are practicing. Is it only to enjoy what you're already good at, or is it also to get better?
Are piano scales important?
Many piano student hate practicing scales and arpeggios. They are stereotypical elements of a tedious, boring piano lesson. Everyone knows this. So, why does your teacher insist that you practice them? Do you actually have to practice scales?
There are certainly a large number of pianists who don’t practice scales (I’m told Daniel Barenboim is one of them). Strictly speaking, you can get everything you need from the repertoire itself. You can make technical exercises out of the pieces, and in this way practice exactly what you need.
Besides, a great deal of music doesn’t even have scales. If you are mostly interested in playing this music, perhaps playing scales is not an efficient use of your time.
So, am I advocating practicing scales? Yes, to a degree. But, let me qualify that by saying that there are many bad ways to practice scales. If you are viewing it as drudgery that you have to slog through before you get to the really fun stuff, you’re missing the point (of music practice in general!).
If you don't believe something is important, don't practice it. As an artist, you need to take responsibility for your own training. Even if you are studying with a teacher who believes scales or arpeggios are important, you deserve to be satisfied that you aren't wasting your time. Discuss your concerns with your teacher.
Are arpeggios important?
Everything I've said about scales applies to arpeggios as well. These are basic building blocks of music and of piano technique, so yes, they are important. But, you must practice them well in order to get benefits from them.
Try different methods of practicing arpeggios. You might try this book (which covers both scales and arpeggios):
How long should you practice scales and arpeggios for?
For as long as you need to.
I'm serious. If you have no problem playing scales or arpeggios, then you probably don't need to practice them. But if scales or arpeggios are hard for you to play, it might be worth putting some time into them. You need to decide this for yourself, based on what results you are hoping to achieve.
Start by devoting a small portion of your practice time to scales. For example, you could start every practice session by running through all of the major scales.
Don't try to play perfectly, as this might encourage you to spend too much time. As a result, you'll likely get demotivated, and stay away from scales entirely.
How should I practice scales? (a step-by-step sequence)
Many pianists struggle mightily with scales. For example, they struggle to play them fast, evenly, cleanly, and comfortably. It is also common to have issues with either the left hand going down the keyboard, or the right hand going up the keyboard. Scale-playing certainly did not come easily to me, which is why I spent the time thinking about how to re-approach the whole issue. Hopefully, you will find my explorations useful.
This sequence of exercises is experiential in nature. That is, you must do the exercises as I have written them in order to understand what the heck I’m talking about. Even if your scales are great, please try this out on the piano. At the end of the day, the words are simply a narrative, describing a physical experience. This is about piano playing, not reading.
OK, let’s get started.
A first look at playing scales
For the purposes of this article, we are looking at scales from a physical perspective. Each note of a scale has a musical function, but in order for the physical technique to work, the musical side needs to be on autopilot. When you practice the following exercises, you will use the metronome, and thus you will not have time to wait for tension to build, or anything like that. That’s fine. Let it build if it builds, and if it doesn’t, no big deal. As always when we practice, we focus on only one thing at a time.
Exercise 1: One note per click
- Set your metronome to 60.
- Play a 2-octave C major scale. You can play hands separately, or hands together. The fingering does not matter. Your hand position does not matter. What matters is the following:
If this is a piece of cake for you, you may go on. If not, set a timer for 15 minutes and repeat the exercise over and over, focusing only on dropping with each click. It does not matter if your fingering is wrong (there is no “correct” fingering anyway). It does not matter if the notes are wrong. If you find that it’s going too fast for you, are you really not trying to play the right notes?
With the metronome set to 60, can you play this scale while consistently dropping on every click, regardless of what notes you are playing?
If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure”, continue working on this exercise.
If the answer is “yes”, go on to Question 2.
With the metronome set to 60, can you play this scale while consistently dropping on every click and consistently playing the correct notes?
If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure”, continue working on this exercise.
If the answer is “yes”, you now know how to play a scale with one note per beat. You can play it slower, or faster. Try playing it at faster speeds. Go all the way up to 208 (the maximum on my metronome), if you’d like. It may be harder at a fast tempo, but that only means that you are working too hard. We’ll address that as we go.
Exercise 2: Two notes per click
- Set your metronome to 60.
- You will now play a 2-octave scale.
- Two notes per click.
Now, ask yourself Questions 1 and 2 again, as before.
Exercise 3: Four notes per click
- Set your metronome to 60.
- You will now play a 4-octave scale.
- Four notes per click.
Again, ask yourself Questions 1 and 2.
If you can answer yes to Question 2 with four notes per click, you now know how to play scales. It’s now just a matter of cleaning up the rough edges. And they are probably really rough, so we will need to use some serious magic. Stay with me, because things are about to get weird…
A closer look at your experience
You should now understand what it means to play a four-octave scale in parallel motion with four notes per click. You should understand that it involves dropping your arms on each click, and nowhere else. If this isn’t clear to you, and you can’t do it fairly reliably, continue working on the preceding exercises, in the order I gave them, until you can do it. Don’t worry about being perfect. It’s enough if you get the basic idea.
The ultimate goal, as it were, is to be able to take this way of playing and perform it at any tempo.
Exercise: Go fast
Try it now, at various tempos. If you can play at 120, you are in good shape, and can play fast enough to pass the RCM Level 10 exam. At 144, you are probably more comfortable with scales than most college-level piano majors. At 176, you should not have a problem playing scales in all but the most demanding repertoire. However, I want you to keep going, up to 208 (or whatever the max on your metronome is), whether or not you are playing correctly. Specifically, I want for all of these to feel exactly the same to you. At this point, you know the basic movements. You just need to do them, exactly as you learned them, only faster or slower.
Easier said than done, I know. My guess is that you struggled to play faster. Do not worry about this. It means you have a lot of potential for growth!
Let me offer something for you to consider
The reason you can’t play faster is because you aren’t doing the basic movement anymore. You’re either adding something to it, or completely changing it.
I don’t know what you’re changing. You probably don’t either. But you’re doing too much, and it’s slowing you down. We can’t attack this directly, as neither of us knows what it is that you’re doing. So, we need to approach this a different way.
The next exercise will help you figure out what you’re doing wrong. I’m asking you to trust the exercise and let it teach you something. You may not know what it’s supposed to teach you, and that’s OK. You might not even agree with me that you are doing anything wrong, and that’s OK too. Just do the exercise and see if it brings up anything for you that you hadn’t noticed before. And if it brings up nothing, that’s OK too! Just notice what happens.
Exercise: See the difference
- Set the metronome to 60.
- Play the 4-octave scale, always making sure you drop on each click.
- Increase speed by 1 click.
- Play again, always making sure you drop on each click.
- Continue in this manner.
Eventually, you will reach a point where things start to feel difficult to play.
(Remember: always make sure you drop on each click!)
It’s more important than playing the correct notes. If you need to, just drop your arms randomly on the keyboard instead of playing the scale! Just play for the correct number of beats (or approximately).
Then, lower the tempo. Again, always make sure you drop on each click! When it’s slower, you might find it easier. Play the scale correctly. Then, go faster, click by click. If you need to, just drop randomly. Whatever. Blah blah blah. Completely fake it. Don’t worry, there’s a purpose to this.
Move around randomly on the metronome.
Try playing the scale at each tempo.
When you go faster, you test it out, and it doesn’t work, so you give up and switch to faking it.
When you go slower, you test it out, and maybe it does work.
You give up.
Keep doing this.
Do you see clearly that there are two different things you do while playing this exercise? There are two different moves you make in this game?
- You test.
- You give up.
Sometimes you do one, sometimes you do the other. I don’t know when or why you do them, and maybe you don’t know exactly either. But maybe you’re starting to see glimpses of it.
Do you see that?
If “yes”, move on.
If “no”, or “I’m not sure”, keep working on this until you see these two things clearly.
Exercise: Feel the difference
At this point, you should realize that when playing a scale, you have two options. Either you test in order to see if it’s working right, or you realize it’s too hard and you give up and switch to just pounding on the keyboard randomly. Now, I’m not telling you to do one or the other. Instead, I’m just trying to find words to describe what you’re already doing.
So what’s the difference? You can see it. That’s how you knew to label it. But there must be more. I want you to ask yourself what they feel like. Is one easier than the other?
Of course, it should be no surprise that giving up is easier than testing. Try it again.
Testing is hard, right? Maybe it’s not super-hard, but it’s certainly harder than giving up. Where do you feel this difficulty? Where in your body?
Try it again.
Do you feel it in your jaw? In your fingers?
Try it again.
In your neck? In your eyes?
Try it again.
In your brain? Your back? Your legs?
Try it again.
In your breathing? Your ears? How about your thoughts?
Try it again.
Seriously, do exactly as I say, in the order I say it.
Do you feel the difference between testing and giving up somewhere in your body? If “yes”, move on. If “no” or “I don’t know”, continue working on this exercise.
So you feel the difference. Testing is harder than giving up. You feel it somewhere. Now, you may be right, you may be wrong, you may have in incomplete understanding, or this may all be obvious to you. No matter.
Now, I think I might know why you test. It’s because you want to see if you have gotten good enough at the scale yet to play it at the current tempo, right? If so, that’s perfectly reasonable. You’re learning a skill, and you want to try it out.
I’m going to give you something else to think about:
Testing doesn’t work. It has never worked and it will never work. Testing is not the new skill. It’s actually the old way of doing things.
Just think about it. Do the exercise again.
I’m trying to put a voice in your head. A voice that questions your reality. You don’t have to take the voice too seriously. But is it possible that reality is not what your mind is telling you it is?
Testing is not new to you. It’s probably very, very old.
I can’t convince you of this. Do the exercise. The exercise is where the learning happens. If you’re not convinced, do it again. If you still aren’t convinced, and you still get frustrated trying to play fast scales, do the exercise again. After that, if it’s still not enough, let it go. It’s not a big deal.
Are you willing to (sometimes) let go of testing while you practice scales? Are you willing to (once in a while) just give up and do the exercises as they are, being open to whatever shows up?
If “no”, and you’re still interested in understanding what I’m trying to get at, go back to the beginning of the scale exercises and try them again. Take your time. There’s no benefit to rushing through these. Each moment you spend doing these exercises is an opportunity to learn something about yourself.
If “yes” or “I’m not sure”, I’m really happy you’ve made it this far. You should know that you’re past the weirdest part. Now, we can start learning in earnest.
How to Play Scales, For Real This Time
Now, I want you to try the following, at all tempos:
- 1 drop every click
- 1 drop every other click
- 1 drop every four clicks
The preceding exercises should be practiced in every key until they can be performed easily. They will teach you the basic ideas. Do not skip them. The shifting required in your brain to go from one to the next must become second-nature to you.
Once you have mastered those, you are ready for the real scale exercise.
Exercise: The real scale exercise
Repeat this until you can play scale perfectly at 208, or until the timer runs out.
- Set the metronome to 208.
- Set a timer for 30 minutes.
- Play for 2 minutes at each click.
- If you are playing the scale note-perfect, return to step 1. Otherwise, decrease the tempo by 1 click.
This exercise should be practiced in every key. You can try a variety of patterns, such as parallel motion, contrary motion, thirds, etc.
Some advice about this exercise
When you start this exercise, it will sound horrible. Absolutely horrible. In fact, you will make a complete mess of every scale. That is exactly as intended. Focus on the drop.
Let me say, it may take years to master this exercise. However, do not let that discourage you. It’s important to realize that you are making excellent use of your time by practicing this. It does not matter that you are not playing “well.” This exercise is designed to teach you exactly what you don’t understand about scales. Thus, you will be spending most of your time in that area where your playing is imperfect. You must remember that this is the point. There is no sense in repeating that which you are already good at! You must always focus on dropping with every click.
This exercise perhaps violates everything anyone has ever told you about how to play scales. It may be extremely challenging only for that reason. However, do not let that deter you. Try it for 30 minutes a day for a month and see if you don’t start to get the point.
Once you get the hang of this type of work, you can decide for yourself how much time you want to spend on it. Eventually, this will be a good 5 to 10-minute warm-up before you start your “real” practicing. For now, though, make this a major focus. It’s not enough to “get” the exercise intellectually. Rather, the purpose of it is to provide an experience. That is, the experience itself will be the teacher, not me. So, do the exercise as printed, and let it teach you whatever it teaches you.
Two common questions about playing smoothly
“You’re just saying to accent every quarter note/eighth note/etc., right? What’s the big deal?”
No, I’m saying to drop on every quarter note/eighth note, etc. In other words, a drop is not an accent. That is, an accent is a sound. However, a drop is a movement. Notes you drop on can be louder or softer than the surrounding notes.
Do the exercise and see what happens. Focus on physical movement, not sound. The reason your thumb has unwanted accents is because you are dropping on the thumb, regardless of where it fits in the beat. This is such a simple problem, and most pianists completely overlook its cause.
“I’ve already tried dropping on every four sixteenth notes, but I still have unwanted accents.”
This sequence of exercises does not teach you to drop on every four sixteenth notes. It teaches you drop on every possible note at every possible tempo (by all means, add the ones I left out). Once you can do that, you cannot possibly have any unwanted accents anywhere. You will have total and complete control. And you will have gotten there easily, since you are focusing only on dropping with the metronome clicks.
No thumb crossings, and no “thumb-over” or “thumb-under”. You didn’t have to make sure your hands were together, or push yourself to go faster and faster. There was no need to wonder if you’re supposed to land at the top of the scale, or just go straight back down. I didn’t ask you to play “lighter” or “to the bottom of the key”. Complete control, all without lifting a finger.
Try these exercises on the piano. Try them with different scales, using both white and black keys. Don’t simply read this article, as it probably will not make much sense on its own. Then again, you might try the exercises and still find that you have no clue what I’m talking about. After all, everyone is different. If you find that you have a different perspective on this, let me know!