Ahhhh… scales, triads, and arpeggios… no doubt you’ve likely come across students who really struggle in this arena. True, much of the struggle could be due to lack of practice, but for some students, these technical requirements just don’t “stick”.
And when students struggle with technical work, they don’t internalize what they are playing. They are so caught up in “survival mode” that the benefit of learning to play scales, triads and arpeggios is lost. Instead, It becomes a pointless exercise for both of you. But not for long…
Over the years of prepping piano students for piano exams, I’ve found some simple “tricks” to help struggling students who are required to learn a large amount of technical work. Some of you may also use these same ideas, but in the interest of helping those teachers who are throwing up their hands in frustration (and defaulting to requesting more and more practice), here are 3 of my favorites.
After reading the post, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below – how do YOU help students who struggle with scales, triads, and arpeggios?
This is certainly not my invention, but it really, really works and has quickly become the way I begin teaching scales from the get-go (as well as assisting strugglers).
Chunking scales means that the scale is not played note-per-note, but rather in “chunks” of 3 or more notes at a time.
For example, the scale of B Major would be played as a “chunk of” B, C#, D# (all together)… thumb tucks under to E and then a chunk of F#, G#, and A#. The thumb can then tuck to B and the process can be repeated to complete the 2-octave scale (and in reverse on the way down).
Why This Works: This approach to playing scales focuses on two important things. 1) where the “thumb tuck” happens and 2) the arrangement of accidentals. The thumb tuck is isolated, and therefore the scale’s fingering is very clear. The arrangement of accidentals becomes much less confusing when seen as a group rather than as individual notes.
The next step: Once your students can accurately “chunk” their scale, then elaborate on this exercise by having your students first play the “chunk” as 3 notes together and then separately.
Most students find broken triads easier to play than solid. When triads are broken your student has those few split seconds more to think about each note before it is played, as opposed to when they are solid, and those seconds of thought are eliminated… unless you “whisper them”.
In this case, the “whispering” is actually almost indiscernible finger movements on the keys. Have your students practice their solid triads by first “whispering” the three keys as though they are playing a broken triad. Each of the three fingers used lightly and quickly taps the key (without depressing it) before the solid triad is then played.
Why this works: “Whispered” triads mimic the broken version with which your student is likely more comfortable. Isolating the individual fingers/keys eliminates confusion as your student finds each inversion.
The next step: Gradually increase the speed at which these solid triads are to be played. Doing so increases the speed of the “whisper” until it gradually becomes internalized rather than an actual motion of the fingers.
I can’t take the credit for this one. My 11 year old student came up with the name and it has stuck in my studio ever since. While explaining that the arpeggios he was playing used primarily his 1, 2 and 3 fingers he held out his hand with those fingers isolated. “Looks like dragon claws” he observed. Bingo!
For students who struggle either on the ascent or descent of an arpeggio, demonstrate the “Dragon Claw” visual and then discuss how many “claw formations” are required to complete the arpeggio (for example, in a 2 octave D Major arpeggio, the dragon claws comes out twice).
Why This Works: This is a strong mental image that eliminates the fingering issue. You can then discuss which claw touches each note (especially for arpeggios that require accidentals) and can practice finding this “claw” formation on the ascent and descent. Arpeggios that begin on a black key (and the resulting changes in fingering) become easier with this mental image as well.
The next step:
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