3 Ways To Make Teaching Scales More Interesting

Make teaching scales more interesting for your students with these fun ideas!

3 Ways To Make Teaching Scales More Interesting

Scales could be referred to as the ‘vegetables’ of the music education world. Parents often battle with getting their kids to eat their vegetables, and music teachers often battle with getting their students to learn their scales.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Chefs and food companies have created loads of fun recipes to encourage children to eat their veggies, saving many parents from the argument of, “Eat them, they’re good for you!”

To save music teachers like you from the argument of, “Just play them, they’re important!” we’ve got a bunch of fun ways you can make teaching and learning scales more interesting. You’re welcome. 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Why Learn Scales?
  2. Scales and Improvisation
    2.1 An Alternative Accompaniment
  3. Composing With Scales
  4. Scale Challenges
  5. Putting Scales in Context
  6. Our Secret

Why Learn Scales?

When we’re inevitably faced with the question, “But why do I have to learn scales?” it’s useful to have a go-to answer.

Rarely does the answer, “Because I’m the teacher and I told you so,” go down well. Students want to know the why behind what they’re learning, and it’s our job to tell them.

Reasons include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Improves finger strength, agility, and dexterity
  • Helps develop an understanding of notes in a particular key (which is beneficial when it comes to improvising)
  • Good way to warm up both the fingers and the mind ready for practice
  • There’s always a requirement of scales in exams and auditions (and while this alone isn’t the best reason for learning scales, it can provide explanation to the necessity of learning scales accurately)

Controversially, some teachers believe that scales are no longer relevant. Read about that here.

Scales And Improvisation

One reason students don’t like scales is because they don’t sound interesting. Sure, some students like the way the patterns sound (we’ve even known students to say that listening to scales is soothing) but the majority of them will tell you they sound boring.

One way to fix this: improvisation. 

  1. Choose a scale for your student to work on
  2. Play the scale normally (sorry student, you’ll have to deal with it for a minute) 
  3. Now the fun starts. You provide an accompaniment (this can just be a simple chord progression) for them to improvise over, using only the notes of the scale.
  4. Alternatively, you could use a backing track (we love MusiClock)

By using the scale to create an improvisation, the student will know the scale inside out (plus they’ve had fun with it, rather than simply playing through it)

An Alternative Accompaniment 

One challenge teenage students have loved is accompanying themselves playing the scale.

“Accompanying themselves? How does that work? They grow another pair of arms?”

Not quite…

  1. Choose a scale
  2. Work out a simple chord progression using that scale (we recommend a simple tonic dominant pattern to start with)
  3. Play a chord per beat in the right hand and hold down octaves in the left hand. Cycle through this pattern four times.
  4. Record this onto the student’s phone or table (you might want to have them record a “1, 2, 3, 4” to know when to start playing)
  5. Press play and let the student improvise with the scale over the top of their accompaniment
  6. If your student is feeling more adventurous, you can let them play around with the rhythm of the accompaniment

You can find out more about students creating their own backing track accompaniment here.

Composing With Scales

As we mentioned before, students can drag their heels when it comes to learning scales because of their lack of understanding why. Why are scales are important? Why do they have to learn them?

One way to illustrate their importance is through a composition activity.

  1. Choose a scale
  2. Form a simple bass line using a chord progression in that key. Write it down.
  3. Experiment with the scale to create a motif. Perhaps some notes could be played twice and others could be held for longer. Maybe midway through ascending, you start descending!
  4. When the student is happy with their melody, write it down.

Seeing the scale in action and using it to create a short piece helps the student put into context why scales are important and useful (they’ve just used one to create a piece!)

Scale Challenges

A lot of the time, students love being competitive. If scales are feeling a bit of a drag, introduce a studio-wide Scale Challenge.

There are SO many ways you could do this, so here’s just a few suggestions:

  • Point System. If a student learns a scale in their right hand, they get one point. If they learn it in their left hand, they get another point. If they can play it in both hands, that’s two points. If they can play it at a certain speed, that’s three points. Who can get the most points in a certain amount of time? (Maybe there’s even a prize on offer!)
  • Checklist. For each scale, students have a list of challenges to complete. These could include playing the scale…
    • 25 times in 3 minutes
    • 10 times in a row without making a mistake
    • In front of 6 different people
    • With different rhythms (you can notate the rhythms depending on the level of your students)
    • Using different dynamics (e.g. incorporating crescendos and diminuendos)
    • While changing articulation (e.g. staccato on the way up, legato on the way down)
      For even more suggestions as to how you can add challenges to your students learning scales, check out this blog.

Putting Scales In Context

If a student is still lacking enthusiasm for scales and not understanding the why behind learning them, try putting them in a bigger context.

We’ll give you a hypothetical scenario you can use as a basis for your own students.

  • The next piece in Bella’s book is in A major
  • Before Bella starts looking at this next piece, she is shown how to play the A major scale
  • She then learns the A major arpeggio
  • Bella is then given the task to write out the A major scale both in treble clef and bass clef
  • She is then set the challenge of working out the I, IV, V and vi chords and writing these down
  • Using those chords as a bass line, Bella then improvises a melody using the notes in the A major scale
  • Focusing on an element from the improvisation, Bella turns it into a short piece that she writes down
  • Bella is then told to turn to the next piece in her book (and Bella exclaims, “Oh wow, it’s in A major!”

All of these scale-based activities could take an entire lesson (maybe even more) but it will be worth the time spent.

Rather than just teaching a scale, telling your student to learn it, memorize it, then move onto the next one, you’re showing them the why behind learning scales.

You’re showing them how scales make up music.

You’re showing them that without scales they wouldn’t have the songs they know and love.

And when students understand the why they’re more inclined to say, “Okay, sure!” the next time you introduce them to a new scale.

Our Secret

Psst, we have another secret for making scales even more engaging… TopMusic Cheat Sheet ‘Turning Off Auto-Pilot in Scales’.

Our cheat sheet gives you and your students even more ways to make scales more interesting (and sometimes more challenging!)

You can even print copies for your students to take home and work through the suggestions to jazz up their scale practice. Download your copy today!

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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