How To Get The Most Out Of Practicing Scales

There are two kinds of pianists: those who like to practice scales and those who don’t. I confess to being in the first group (please don’t throw any tomatoes!). Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve found the smooth sound of scales flowing up and down the keyboard to be very relaxing. Similar to watching waves at the seashore. But even with this level of natural enjoyment, over the years I’ve had to come up with some ways to keep scale practice interesting, effective, and challenging. Here are some of my ideas and techniques about how to get the most out of practicing scales:

1. If you find yourself avoiding scales, keep in mind all their benefits, which are not limited to just building our technique. For one thing, they help us feel comfortable in all 12 keys, which is something that most pianists struggle with. They also make us better sight readers and facilitate learning written pieces. I found this out when, after practicing scales for a while, my fingers began to know where to go, as if by themselves, even while I played a piece for the first time. It can be inspiring to remember that they have benefits that go far beyond the mere playing of scale-like passages. They train our hands.

2. After you practice a particular scale, try improvising using that scale. Even creating a simple melody with one hand will help you attain fluency using that scale, in both written and improvised music.

3. Play the scale with one hand staccato and one hand legato. Then the opposite. This keeps the brain involved and makes the time go by faster, because we’re more focused.

4. Try one hand soft and one hand loud. Then the opposite.

5. Have fun mixing up 3 & 4 above. For instance, play an F# major scale soft and staccato in the LH while the RH plays loud and legato. Have a friend or family member challenge you with other combinations. Kids in particular like to stump their parents with this one!

6. Play a different scale in each hand. Some juxtapositions will sound better than others, but all will be interesting and will stretch the ear, in true Charles Ives-ian fashion!

7. Play scales in contrary motion, and in 3rds and 6ths between the hands. (I wish I had started doing this earlier in my development!!!)

8. One other technique that I enjoy and find extremely effective is to play a scale slowly in the LH, 2 octaves up and down repeatedly, while the RH improvises a simple melody, even with whole notes. Dividing the attention in this way helps the scale become ingrained in the LH while giving a big boost to your hand independence. It’ll also help with learning written pieces that call for this type of texture, such as Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.”

I hope you find these ‘ scale games’ to be as fun and engaging as I do. Please leave a comment below if you have other ideas or suggestions you’d like to share about how to get the most out of practicing scales.

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11 thoughts on “How To Get The Most Out Of Practicing Scales”

  1. These are such great ideas to keep in mind, especially now, when I actually have time to practice! I can hear that “school year” clock ticking, and am carving out time to get my chops back up. I’ve been utilizing a lot of skills and concepts from my Keyboard Improv lessons, but haven’t actually played nearly enough. I’ll stop typing now and get to work – thanks, Ron!

    • You definitely have the right idea about carving out time to practice, Janet. Especially as busy adults, our days get filled up real fast. Keep in mind, though, that it’s less like constructing a building and more like watering plants: in actuality we often don’t get around to building the hypothetical towers of our dreams but we always find a few minutes to water our plants. And we find that with just a little bit of care each day, our plants grow and thrive. It’s exactly the same with our playing. Have fun!


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