Scaling New Heights

While listening to a Cedar Park, TX band practice, I noticed that the director spent a fair amount of the lesson time on warming the band up with scales.

Piano lessons almost always include scales.  Band practice includes scales.  You name the musical endeavor, and I guarantee scales are included.

Ick.

I can’t think of any student who doesn’t balk at doing their scales.  I, too, am guilty of complaining about my scale practice.  Or, at least, I used to be guilty of it.

Like any activity, you decide for yourself whether to love it or loathe it.  When it comes to scales, there are lots of reasons to learn to love them, and those reasons are far-reaching.

Let’s talk about my favorite topic–your hand health.  Playing scales at the beginning of practice sessions is a great way to warm up your muscles and joints.  If your idea of practice is sitting down and plowing through an Etude at full throttle, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice and risking injury.  No runner starts out full throttle on a five-mile run.  No gym enthusiast grabs a 200-lb. weight and immediately starts bench presses. They start their run or workout with stretching and maybe some gentle cardio.  But absolutely no strength training without properly warming up.  Your hands are just as valuable and vital as your biceps and quadriceps, and you need to treat them the say way.  So, playing scales, slowly, methodically and with intention, is a great way to warm up.  Don’t start by blasting from the bottom of the keyboard to the top at full-throttle.  Take it easy.  Listen to your tone, and evenness of rhythm. Do this for five minutes.  Then, start picking up the pace, or moving on to your other repertoire pieces.

Scales can be meditative and relaxing.  Here’s something you may never hear from your teacher, but it is an excellent tension reliever:  Play a scale you can’t mess up.  My favorite “can’t mess it up” scale is B major.  Check it out!  If you get your fingering wrong in B major, you just can’t finish playing the scale.  The black notes fit your hand absolutely perfectly, and your thumb goes on every white note (both of them). It’s by far the easiest scale to learn because of that. Conversely, I recommend avoiding C major.  Too easy to mess up the fingering, and if you aren’t careful, you will ingrain bad scale technique. Trust me:  B Major is your friend.  So, play that one slowly, and just enjoy the sound the piano makes.  Listen for how each note grows as the soundboard and the frame of the piano start to ring with each note.  Feel the weight of your arm and hand sinking into the key.  Learn to enjoy that sensation.

Scales are the root of all Western music for at least the last 500 years.  Get your hands so comfortable in a key that you simply can’t play wrong notes because they FEEL wrong!  If you’re playing in Ab major, and find your finger slipping to a B natural, or E natural, of course it sounds wrong, but it should FEEL wrong too.  How do you get that kind of comfort in all the various keys?  Scales.

So you want to play by ear?  Want to play what you hear in ANY key?  One of the cornerstones to developing that skill is going to be —  wait for it —   SCALES!  :)  Your familiarity with every single note in a key will lay the groundwork for being able to play around with a melody.

I hope this encourages piano students to think differently about their scale practice.  It’s not a “medicine” you have to take to play the piano. It’s the breath you take to play the piano.