Teaching Scales - The Purrfect Way by Jackie Sharp

The challenges of scale technique

As I am sure that most of you would agree, necessity, Plato's famous Mother of Invention, is at the very least a powerful driving force for change.

Three years ago, I sat quietly contemplating the awkward hand position of an otherwise talented young student, as he whizzed up and down an A flat major scale in thirds.

His tone was, as usual, harsh, with an abundance of undesirable accents – the obvious result of a massive accumulation of tension in his body.

His knees were squeezed together, his shoulders hunched and his narrow fingers rigidly bunched together towards the thumb.

Does this sound familiar?

This student, let's call him John, had come to me the year before as a transfer student. In spite of my countless efforts to induce relaxation in his body, nothing had ever helped to any significant degree.

Any slight changes were transitory, and as soon as his mother stopped pestering him to relax, he went straight back to his old ways.

And yet he was a musical boy, and I refused to give up!

“John," I said, grabbing his right hand mid-descent. “Let's try something different."

I placed my hands in position to start the scale and played him the first three notes.

"How many notes did I play?" I asked. He shrugged.

"Ok, I'll do it again. How many?"

"Three."

"Great! – now how does it sound when I play them?" I played again.

"I dunno."

Well, I kept repeating my three notes until we had ascertained that they sounded rich and deep, but not harsh.

“Ok, now it's your turn!” I told him.

It didn't take long for him to recognise his tone as first harsh, then shallow when he tried not to be harsh.

Shifting his mindset 

We talked about fingers, joints, arm positions and arm weight, making changes one by one on those three notes, and describing the tonal effects of each change that we made.

30 minutes down the track, he was able to consistently reproduce three beautifully sonorous notes by sitting his fingertips on top of the keys, transferring arm weight into the first key and progressively releasing arm weight until the wrists pulled the final fingers off the keys.

We then moved on to the next four notes of the scale and did the same thing.

This time it worked on the second try!

I sent him home, asking him to practice nothing but that. He needed to reproduce the same tonal quality three times in a row in five different sittings.

Expanding his range

He called me the following day to tell me that he was ready for another lesson. We made groupings of three and four notes for all his scales, always preparing each group before playing, and discussing the kinaesthetic sensations that would produce the aural sensations that we were wanting to achieve.

A week of practicing nothing but those scales, and he was ready to move onto other types of technical work with a similar approach.

All in all, after two weeks re-learning how to play the piano through scales, arpeggios, etc, he began working on his pieces again.

Needless to say, his newfound sensory awareness transformed his playing bit by bit, and he was eventually able to perform with the musicality and artistry I had always believed to be within his reach.

Using groupings with other students

Inspired by John's drastic improvement, I began using a similar method with all my other students. Most of them had things that I wanted to correct in their technique, so I used the groupings to get them to focus on whatever aspect of technique I wanted them to focus, as well as on the aural impact of making the changes that I was asking for.

I only had one student whose technique and listening skills were already exactly as I wanted, but I found that for her, the method worked well in getting scales learnt quicker.

That particular year, my students' examiner told me that he had never experienced such high quality technical work!

Time passed, and to keep a long story as short as possible, I decided to notate this method of teaching technique, as a teaching resource, both for myself, and for other teachers.

The problem I encountered was how to communicate to teachers the very successful way in which it had been used in my studio. So I dropped the idea for quite some time.

Using stickers to guide finger placement

Then one day, in an effort to guide a little girl's finger placement on the keys, put stickers exactly where I wanted her to place her fingertips.

The following student, a much older girl, arrived for her lesson, and I jokingly asked her to sit down and play G major LH, taking care to place her fingertips exactly onto the stickers. She did, and, much to my surprise, her hand fell into a lovely shape as soon as her fingers went onto the stickers.

I have two pianos in my studio, so I left the stickers on, and tried it out on many students with hands of all different shapes and sizes. The results absolutely amazed me. The visual pattern actually shaped the hand perfectly, irrespective of the size of the individual hand.

Knowing that many teachers would not want to take the time to apply stickers onto their piano keys, and that more advanced students would probably not like the thought of learning scales with stickers, I began preparing keyboard images with visual representations of the finger positions for all scales. This worked equally well.

My notational issues resolved, I was finally able to represent my method visually, as well as in conventional music notation.


The visual aspect had been the missing link in achieving a synergistic effect of the three senses involved in playing the piano - auditory, kinaesthetic and visual. Image from Scales - the Purrfect Practice Preliminary Grade Book.

Ready to try this approach?

So here's how I would go about teaching the G Major Left Hand page:

1. Discuss the key signature in the notation, then locate the F# on the keyboard.
2. Look at the first note in the notation and then on the keyboard image.
3. Play the note to the student, referring first to where the finger is placed on the piano key. Ask the student to describe the sound.
4. Help the student to position the finger, reminding him not to let the joints collapse.
5. When he plays the note, the sound will probably be weak. Teach him to apply arm weight to produce a rich sound.
6. Look at the four notes in the following slur. Locate them on the keyboard.
7. Talk about how the dots follow the natural shape of the hand.
8. Demonstrate playing the four notes, applying arm weight as the 4th finger drops onto the key, and reducing arm weight note by note until the wrist lifts the thumb off the key. Thumb tucks under
9. Student copies until he gets it right without any collapsing joints. Discuss sound. Student actively listens as he repeats.
10. Move onto the next group and continue the process...

This may seem like a lot of effort, but it's definitely worth it in my opinion. After learning a single scale in this manner, students invariably become more aware of the sound they produce and how to achieve a better tonal quality.

After thoroughly exploring a couple of scales together with the teacher using this method, the learning of new scales can be set as homework, as the system becomes easy for the student (or parent, for the younger ones) to understand.

By Jackie Sharp.

Jacqueline Sharp (LMusA, AMusA, LTCL) is a piano teacher in Sydney, Australia. She has been running her highly successful teaching studio for the past 20 years. Previously, she has worked as visiting Piano Tutor at Sydney Grammar School and Newington College, as well as for the University of NSW. In 2009, she was awarded the prestigious AMEB Shield for having the highest overall student results in the state of NSW. In December 2013, she founded the Purrfect Practice publishing house, which specializes in creating quality, innovative resources to guide music students towards better practice habits. Starting with her Scales - the Purrfect Practice series of books and the My Purrfect Practice music homework books, her vision is to create a line of products which train students to practice efficiently.

This article originally appeared in PianoBenchMag Issue 6. Read the full magazine here: 

 

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