Not sure where to start when teaching scales? I don’t blame you! There are many different approaches to introducing and teaching scales.
In my time spent teaching and blogging about piano, I have encountered teachers who: introduce scales as they apply to a newly assigned piece, introduce scales as dictated by an exam syllabus, introduce scales in order of the circle of 5ths, introduce scales in order of the keys covered by a method book, introduce scales according to common fingering patterns… it varies drastically, and it’s very much a matter of individual style and teaching preferences.
Every teacher has an approach to scale study that works for them.
But… if you don’t yet know where to start with scales… or if you feel like you’re floundering in the “scale department”, here are 6 tips for streamlining scale study.
6 Terrific Tips For Teaching Piano Students To Play Scales
1. Begin with the pentascale… but change the fingering
A good way to introduce your young piano students to scales is by beginning with pentascales (the first 5 notes of the scale). However, using the common right hand fingering of 1-2-3-4-5 can cause future confusion when you eventually change to the 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 fingering to facilitate an octave scale.
So, instead of using a 5-finger scale, teach your students to play the right-hand pentascale by “tucking the thumb”. This means they end the ascending pentascale on their 2nd finger (if playing a scale that begins on a white key), thus learning to tuck their thumb under their 3rd finger on the ascent plus swing their 3 finger over on the decent.
Once your students have mastered this approach, teach them to play the pentascale in this way with hands together. The left hand is easy as it simply steps up from finger 5 to finger 1, but the right hand is learning the correct fingering for the start of an octave scale. This early muscle memory will be extremely helpful as your students progress with scale study.
2. Drill “scale fingering” away from scales
Give your students the time they need to settle into scale fingering without worrying about accidentals. With a blank piece of paper and a pen you can create some simple fingering drills that reinforce the practice they need, without the worry of “getting something wrong”.
Playing only white keys, and with the understanding that these patterns only move by steps (no skipping… fingers must tuck under or swing over to facilitate the fingering), write out patterns for your students such as:
RH 1 – 2 – 3 – 1- 2
LH 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 4
RH 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 -1 – 3 – 2
LH 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1
Using these types of patterns, challenge your students to see if they can navigate the changes in direction, time them to see how quickly they can complete each fingering pattern, and have them draw their own patterns to challenge themselves. Send one or two fingering patterns home each week on their assignment sheet for drill and practice.
3. Give students the “whole step, half step” advantage
Instead of only having your students memorize the accidentals belonging to each scale, give them the advantage of understanding the whole and half step patterns of each scale. Spend time before introducing a scale by choosing any key on the piano and asking your students to find a whole step or a half step above or below. Next, spend time with short, fun drills such as:
“Start on F# and play this pattern descending…. W W W H”
“Start on Db and play this pattern ascending… W H W H”
After some time spent “playing” with whole steps and half steps, help your students memorize the major scale pattern (W W H W W W H), and then the natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor.
4. Avoid teaching only “easy” scales first
It’s important that piano students do not mentally separate “easy” scales with “hard” scales. In reality, all scales are simply patterns! Take care not to “save” scales such as Db Major until your students are older, as this gives the perception that they are more difficult and more “frightening”. Using your whole step, half step approach and your fingering comfort drills, any key can be tackled by any level of student.
5. Introduce scales in a set order
There is no one “right” order, but it’s important to have some sense of organization when introducing scales. A “willy nilly” approach can create confusion and feelings of negativity towards scales… for example, teaching F major alongside D major could cause fingering confusion.
Choose an approach to scale study… and stick with it. Some teachers choose to introduce scales in blocks that include similar fingering, others prefer the circle of 5ths, while others prefer black key patterns. In the comments below we’d love for you to share the order in which you introduce scales… and why!
6. Bring relevance to scales
It wasn’t until one of my students sighed and said, “Why do I have to learn these.. I never use them when I’m playing…” that I realized that I needed to make scales immediately relevant to my students. Not every piece will have an obvious “sontatina-style” scale smack dab in the middle, but this doesn’t mean that scales aren’t relevant.
Before staring a new piece, talk about the scale upon which the piece is based. Find parts of the scale within the music (places that step, places that skip or leap but still outline portions of the scale, the tonic and dominant notes, accidentals that are leading tones or are from the harmonic minor scale etc.) Highlight these parts to show your students how useful scale knowledge can be.
6 (and a half). Continue the Relevance With Creativity
As you teach scales, provide opportunities to use them in improv activities Try playing a simple yet “catchy” accompaniment in a specified key while your students play a pre-determined rhythm “on the tonic and dominant” or “using the first 4 notes of the scale only”. You can do the same with composing activities (“Let’s create a motive using the first 4 notes of the scale!”).
Through this dual approach to relevancy (“score study scale hunting” and “create music using scales”) you not only reinforce your students’ ability to play the scale, but also their understanding of why we need to know scales in the first place!
Teaching Technique Takes Time…
Teaching technique takes time… however, the time you and your students will save in the long-run is invaluable! You’ll avoid weeks of incorrectly practiced scales, lessons filled with fixing fingering, and months of drilling key signatures. It is much more efficient to take the time to teach technique throughly in the beginning than to spend time correcting and reviewing after the fact.
Need more technical work teaching help? You’ll want to read these!