Are scales irrelevant?

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the VMTA’s “Clifford Lecture” given by Professor Gary McPherson from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, a brilliant speaker who never fails to engage, enthrall and challenge his listeners.

The 2-hour presentation was based on some of his research into musical talent in adolescents, which he has been compiling for two decades. One of the more thought-provoking statements he made challenged the audience’s assumed views on the importance of scale playing in a young pianist’s development.

Apparently, many well-known virtuoso pianists don’t play scales and never have done (mention was made of Barenboim and 14-year-old concert pianist Tiffany Poon – the subject of much of his research). The reason? Playing music is much more interesting  than playing scales and given you can find a piece of music which will test and challenge just about any aspect of technique in any key, why spend countless hours at the piano isolating them from the music which they are designed to help you play?

Good point.

I guess that scale practice is just so inherent in a pianist’s development and has been handed down from so many generations that it has become one of those assumed “must-dos”. Given that children seem to have ever diminishing time available for practice, have you ever thought about whether practising scales is actually a good way for your students to spend their precious time?

My answer is yes and no. The positive benefits I see from scale/arpeggio practice are:

  • Improved finger strength, agility, dexterity and independence (there are better exercises for the latter)
  • They develop an understanding of the notes available in a particular key (especially useful for improvisation)
  • They are a good way to “warm up” and stretch (eg. arpeggios) the hands and fingers and centre the mind on the piano, ready for practice

The negatives:

  • Most kids don’t find them particularly enjoyable (although there are some exceptions) and that can negatively influence their desire to continue learning the instrument in the long-term
  • They take time away from repertoire which is always more fun
  • They can be cause for serious conflict between students, parents and teachers when expectations aren’t met
  • They can be cause for a lot of stress in examinations

But even if you agree that scale playing isn’t the best way for a student to spend his/her time, how can you do anything about it when it is such an important part of most exam programs, notably the AMEB? Interestingly, Trinity Guildhall exams have recently reduced their technical work requirement, stating that they are now

“Putting performance at the heart of the exam – with a mark scheme that awards a higher proportion of the marks to the performance of the pieces, and with Technical Work focused on developing performance skills.”

However, looking more in-depth, they haven’t quite severed the umbilical link back to scales, stating:

“Pianists must play 3 short exercises and a small number of scales and arpeggios (4 of each in early grades). Singers choose a set of vocal exercises. Most other instruments have a choice between playing scales and arpeggios and playing studies/exercises that explore similar technical areas.”

What is it about pianists and playing scales?! Still, it is a move in the right direction in my opinion. The technical work requirement for Grade 6-8 AMEB is still quite ridiculous even though they have apparently cut back from the old days (pre my time!).

Personally, I’ve never done a lot of scale practice (perhaps that shows in my playing), but I’ve always played them to some extent and expected my students to do the same. Right now, I’m focussing my technical energy on my Czerny Challenge in order to improve specific aspects of technique while still playing repertoire which I enjoy. I still do technical exercises if I have a specific need (trills on weak fingers come to mind), but otherwise scales are just a warm up/focussing exercise for me.

So where to from here? If you are preparing students for exams that require scales, you have no option but to continue. However, for other students, consider your options. I very much like Elissa Milne’s suggestion of playing of modes (see her great article “Playing beyond Major/Minor”) to keep things interesting – this can be great for non-exam students.

On the other hand, if you wish to continue with scales given the above positives, you can keep it simple and relevant by asking students to only play scales in the key of the piece they are about to practice. So, if their first practice piece is in G major, get them to play G major in some of these ways before they begin:

  • Hands Sep
  • Hands Tog (similar/contrary)
  • Chromatic
  • Slow/Fast
  • In rhythms
  • With metronome
  • If it’s a jazzy/modal/pentatonic piece, get them to play in that mode/scale

That way, they are using scales to get a “feel” for their piece before they play it – not a bad idea.

As for me, I’ll continue to use scales as a warm up activity (about 5-10 mins for a 4-5hr practice), and suggest my kids do the same, without going overboard. I’ve already tried modes with some students and I plan to do this more in the future.

Let me know your thoughts!

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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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Comments

  1. says

    I think scales can be important to some extent – in that they represent the I to VIII chords that exist in that key. Although I personally don’t put a lot of emphasis on chords either, but the theory of them can be helpful when learning how to plat piano chords.

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