I am completely insane when it comes to scales, chords, and arpeggios. If you study with me, you WILL learn them. Learning your scales will improve BOTH technique, and general music theory knowledge- it's like eating your spinach.
If you are a former student of mine, you will probably remember my famous scale chart:
After years of creating one with a ruler and markers, I've finally created a digital scale chart- I can just print a new one every semester (September, January, May). This will print out perfectly on 11x17 paper. At the beginning of every semester, each student begins with a blank row- they have to earn their stars, but can earn as many as they want in one sitting- building on what they remember from the past. At the "end of the semester" recital, the students with the most stars in each level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) receives an award. I do award ties, and honorable mentions.
I begin teaching scales as soon as a student can comfortably identify and play on the white keys. At this point, they've mastered the musical alphabet, and their finger numbers. All of my students start with 2 octave scales- it is hard to go from 1 octave scales to 2 octave scales, but easy to add another octave once you've mastered 2. Plus- I believe that if you set the bar high, kids will rise to the occasion. Scales are difficult- no doubt, but not impossible AND there is something exciting about mastering something that is difficult.
For my beginners, they get a star on the chart when they've mastered the scale in 2 octaves with the right hand alone. They get a star on the chart when they've mastered the scale in 2 octaves with the left hand alone. Most kids get the first two stars pretty quickly. Here's the tough one- they get a star when they can play both hands together, AND the 2 octave arpeggio hands separate (left hand crosses the right hand for the octave). This is HARD. For many kids, this is the first time they are playing hands together, AND they are NOT working together. However, once they've mastered the C scale hands together, G is not difficult- as a matter of fact, the F-sharp in the right hand is very helpful, because it is the only place you will put your fourth finger. For each scale, the student will receive a star for mastering the right hand, left hand, and hands together/arpeggio technique. Once a student has gotten to F major and B major, they are now learning new fingerings (C,G,D,A,and E are identical fingerings) and are ready to move to the intermediate level.
Once a student reaches the intermediate level, they know all of their white key scales hands together and arpeggios hands separate (2 octaves with the left hand cross over). They are now ready to learn their primary chords and inversions, and chord progressions, for the white key scales, put hands together for the arpeggios, and learn their black key scales, arpeggios, chords, inversions and progressions.
In order to get the star for the intermediate level, they must:
1. Play the scale in 2 octaves, hands together
2. Play the arpeggio in 2 octaves, hands together
3. Play the 3 primary chords of the scale in all three positions (I,IV,and V chords in root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion)
4. Play the standard chord progression: I,IV,I,V(7),I (depending on the student's knowledge, we add the 7th to the V chord)
Student's remain at the intermediate level until they have mastered ALL of the major scales- white and black key. Once they have started to explore the minor scales, and understand the three types of minor scales, they are ready to move to the advanced level.
At the advanced level, a student must do all 4 of the intermediate tasks, BUT now has to add the metronome to #1-#2.
Metronome set at 60bpms:
1 octave scale and arpeggio in quarters
2 octave scale and arpeggio in eights
3 octave scale and arpeggio in triplets
4 octave scale and arpeggio in sixteenths
By this level, a student should understand all of the basic theory of each scale, and now masters technique- plus get a better grasp of subdivision. For the minor scales, I talk students through all three scales (natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor), but when it comes to playing, they play the harmonic minor scale- and understand that by raising the 7th degree of the scale, they help support the harmony by keeping the V chord major, and realizing that Ti always wants to go to Do.
As I write this down, it seems like I have crazy high expectations of my students, but in the 16 years I've been teaching, this has remained one of my best methods. My students do meet my expectations. They move quickly through the method books because most of the knowledge is already grasped through learning the scales. They enjoy seeing how their friends are doing, and trying to keep up, or rooting each other on- while it is a competition, it has always been a fun, friendly one. This will prepare students for learning jazz or pop music in addition to classical, so again, it is putting them in a position to guide their own studies. And this is my overall goal as a teacher- to enable my students to eventually leave me, and play and enjoy the piano in whatever way they want.
Thanks for reading! Now go practice!
is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.