How to make piano scales fun!

OK, so I know that “fun” might be the wrong word to ever describe scales, but there are some great resources available to help make scale practice infinitely more interesting.

As much as it can sometimes be tempting to throw scale practice out for good and just get on with music-making for both ourselves and our students (especially for those of us trying to teach everything in 30 mins!), there will forever be a requirement for scales in music examinations and auditions and therefore a need for us to teach scale technique effectively and concisely.

I have previously described in my post Are Scales Irrelevant? how I like students to play scales in rhythms in order to ensure they stay engaged and to make the learning process both more challenging and interesting. I’ve also discussed non-scale technical work ideas in my post about Holiday Tech Work.

A great book that I’ve recently started using is Philip Johnston’s book Scales Bootcamp. The book is really a reference in two parts:

  • Firstly, it teaches scales by patterns of 3-note and 4-note blocks and shows them in a visually appealing way that kids can instantly recognise. “Wow, that was easy”, said one of my students about this just the other day.
  • Secondly, it is full of brilliant ideas to keep scale practice interesting and to keep the student progressing through ever harder challenges or “twists”.

The challenges include things that I already use such as playing hands separately and together, 2 octaves, 4 octaves, eyes shut, faster, slower, etc. but also includes a huge number of new ideas that I hadn’t thought of, such as:

  • Play the scale 25 times correctly in 3 minutes,
  • Play the scale 10 times in a row without error,
  • Play the scale in front of 6 different people,
  • Describe the notes and fingerings of the scale without actually playing anything and plenty more.

The book then has countless pages of “twists” which are technical challenges designed to make playing even more difficult and ensure the student never switches into ‘autopilot’. The twists are divided into:

  • Rhythms (various rhythm sets, some really quite difficult),
  • Articulations (eg. mixes of slurs, staccato, accents),
  • Dynamics (cresc, decresc are just a start!),
  • Ratio (one had in crotchets, other hand 2 octaves in quavers at the same time, etc),
  • Balance (one hand louder/softer than the other and continually changing),
  • Cacophony (these are combinations of two scales at once – eg. playing a C major scale in LH with an Eb major scale in RH, or major scales a semitone apart, or tritone apart, etc. – hence the name!),
  • Cascades (very fast breakdowns of small parts of each scale – very difficult), and
  • Intervals (eg. playing the same scale in both hands but starting on different notes).

Best of all, the student can track their own progress through all the of the twists and challenges with a check box on each scale page. Johnston’s mantra throughout the book is that if you can complete all the challenges and twists for a scale (and there are LOTS of them!), you’ll never forget a scale again; having tried all of the different ways of playing presented in the book, I’m inclined to believe him!

Next is Mike Springer’s “Not Just Another Scale Book”. There are actually 3 books in this series, but I tend to use Book 1 most with my students:

Not Just Another Scale Book, Book 1
look insideListen!
Not Just Another Scale Book, Book 1
(10 Innovative Piano Solos Using Major and Minor Scales). By Mike Springer. For Piano. Piano Collection; Piano Supplemental; Technique Musicianship. Not Just Another. Intermediate. Book & CD. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.25905)Smp_stars50
(2)
…more info

What Mike has done is write some very cool pieces based on scales in each of the keys…a little bit like a modern-day Well-Tempered Clavier! Best of all, the book comes with a great backing CD that is very well-produced compared to many on the market.

I particularly like “Boogie Woogie Rock” which is the C major scale piece, and the first in this book. It’s fun, fast, includes lots of C major practice with added glissandi and great rhythms all in a boogie style. All my kids love it! Click the link above to see example pages on sheetmusicplus.

Finally, check out a book called “Piano Fitness” from Hal Leonard:

Piano Fitness Piano Fitness
(A Complete Workout). Keyboard Instruction. Softcover with CD. 144 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.311995)…more info

This is a great book for intermediate and advanced students that tackles scales and arpeggios from more of a jazz background. It works around the circle of 5ths and very quickly includes 7ths, pentatonic, blues scales, chords and chord voicings and comes with backing tracks in a whole variety of styles to play along with. Great to add to your students’ repertoire and a good way to keep things interesting.

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  • http://www.musicianlauncher.com Ryan Record

    Thanks for the post. I am a piano teacher and God knows I need some help making scales fun.

  • http://gravatar.com/christinabarrie christinabarrie

    Thanks so much for posting this, Tim – the ‘Not just another scale book’ is a real hit, especially the Boogie Woogie Rock!

  • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

    Thanks Christina – great to hear you’re also a fan :)