Why should I practice scales on the piano?
Many piano student hate practicing scales. It is a stereotypical element 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?
No, of course you don’t 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.
Yes, you should absolutely practice scales
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 is the technique, and this is precisely why they are helpful.
On a personal note, I think scales are fun to play. They are relaxing. It is easy to get absorbed into them (which is exactly where you want to be absorbed when you are doing technical work).
Wait, why don’t you want to practice scales?
If you don’t want to practice scales on the piano, you probably have a reason. Let’s look at a few common reasons, and my answers to them.
“Scales are 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.
I wrote another article about scales which may give you some ideas.
“Scales hurt my hands”
Can you play without pain? What would that take? Maybe you would lose precision, or maybe you would lose speed? Can you try it and see, just with an attitude of curiosity?
Scales do not need to hurt. However, it may take some experimentation to figure out how to play them without pain.
“I’m not good at scales”
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.
A few other benefits of learning scales
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 are quite important to the development of a pianist.
It’s up to you
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!).