It's hard to argue the fact that the most important thing you can teach your piano students is how to practice. Across the board, EVERYONE needs to practice- we practice sports, presentations, speeches, we do mock interviews, and debates. A good chef will try a recipe before serving it to others. A good writer journals regularly. We need to practice our craft- it's how we get better. Unfortunately, I get so many transfer students who haven't been taught HOW to practice. They bring notebooks to me full of assignments with notes to practice X,Y, and Z. When I ask students how they practiced, they usually say something about 30 minutes a day. They sit down and play for 30 minutes.
I would say that at least 50% of my lessons are focused creating a practice strategy. As a teacher, you will get 14% of a student's time at a piano (if they practice 30 a day every day), so you better be sure that when they leave, they are prepared to go home and master that new technique. I ask my kids to do a certain number of reps, rather than a certain time on the clock, and we do that short practice session together. If they sit down and get busy, they can usually knock my assignments out in 20 minutes, and they WILL improve. Practice doesn't have to take forever, but it does need to be FOCUSED. My goal is to get them to sit down to the piano for at least a short time everyday- this is way more effective than one or two long sessions.
Okay... scales. I am totally OCD about scales. I teach them early- way earlier than the method books recommend. I start my students with scales as soon as a student feels comfortable with the white key names. They usually haven't started reading the staff yet. When I notate the scales in their assignment book it usually looks something like this:
The fingering for scales is identical backwards and forwards, so your fingers actually follow your eyes- to go up, read left to right. Going down, right to left.
I teach scales so early for several reasons:
1. It helps them understand the need for good technique (you can't have a bad wrist position and slide your thumb under comfortably, etc.)
2. It reinforces the finger numbers, while not associating a finger number with a note: i.e.- C will not always be under your thumb in the RH and pinkie in the LH.
3. It reinforces the sound and harmonic progression of traditional western music at the very beginning of music making. They already know this sound instinctively.
4. It shows us how to move comfortably up and down the piano in all keys using various patterns. Students will instinctively understand why you don't put a thumb on a black key without you actually needing to explain it. You can eliminate weird fingering at the very beginning.
5. By the time you get to key signatures, your student will already understand it.
6. By the time you get to switching positions, your student will already be navigating the keyboard comfortably.
In a slightly insane twist, I also start my students out with two octave scales instead of just one. As a student, my first teacher who taught me one octave scales, and when I switched, the new teacher made me do two. It was so difficult adding that second octave it was like learning the whole scale over again. BUT, if you can play two octaves, you can do three or four. It's difficult to add to one, but not to two. In my experience, your kids will rise to meet your expectations, so set the bar high. This is achievable, AND will save them stress in the long run. In my opinion.
I have three scale levels in my studio- Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. I usually set up a chart in September, and again in January, and everyone starts at the beginning and plays as many scales as they can. At the end of the "semester" (December and May), the student with the most scales learned in each category receives some sort of prize. You've gotta make scales fun in some way, because who really wants to practice scales? Here are my criteria for each level:
Beginner- receive a "pass" for each hand alone, and then hands together. They are also doing arpeggios- one hand, two octaves (LH, RH, LH crosses, then back down). Students stay in the Beginner level until they have successfully passed C,G,D,A,E,B, and F scales hands together. Once a student has gotten to B and F, which are slight fingering variations from the "norm", they are now ready to do scales with "unique" fingering.
Intermediate- These students need to do their scales hands together, the arpeggio two octaves hands together, and the I,IV,V,I chord progression to "pass". FYI, I teach V and NOT V7 in the chord progression. This way when you're teaching inversions, you can already demonstrate first inversion chords (the V chord), and second inversion chords (the IV chord) and save teaching 7th chords for another day. My Intermediate students need to add F#, C#, Bb, Eb and Ab scales to the beginner scales. At this point, they should know ALL their major scales, including black key scales, chords, and arpeggios. They have started on minor scales and understand the difference between the three types of minor scales, but are playing the harmonic minor scale.
Advanced- All the scales, both black and white in major keys, plus arpeggios with the metronome set at 60- 1 octave in quarter notes, 2 octaves in eighths, 3 octaves in triplets (hard!), and 4 octaves in sixteenths. I have yet to actually have a student complete ALL the minor scales. Black key minors are HARD!
Again, everyone starts back at C at the start of the "semester". You can come in and pass all your scales in one week if you can. The student with the most scales at the end wins fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams. Or... An iTunes gift card.
Anyway... In my studio, my desire to help students develop practice skills and my insistence that all students learn scales have led me to develop some helpful strategies. Here is one where the scale is broken down into four smaller sections: ascending 1 octave, ascending the second octave, descending 1 octave, descending the second octave. You can watch me break this down for a young student-
I'm excited to see what next week will bring! Depending on the student, you could just do ascending one week, and descending the second week, and then put them together the third week. There are many variations that you can make to this. The key strategy: create a systematic approach, break it down into more manageable sections, and master the scale!
You can do it!
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.