“Ok, let’s start with some scales.”
*Cue student’s eyelid’s drooping*.
We all know we’re supposed to teach our piano students their scales, but it can quickly turn into a battle of wills. I never want to tell my students to “eat their vegetables”, so how do I make those vegetables look like candy?
It’s not just the kids that want candy either, adult students can be even more tricky to convince. Most adult students know what they want (usually just to play songs they know and like), and don’t see why they should learn piano scales. Scales conjure up images of an old-fashioned piano teacher with a cane, who only teaches classical repertoire and never listens to what the student wants to learn.
An adult student recently asked me why we learn scales, hmm. Where to begin? Because they’re the foundation of music, because it helps us play runs with ease, because, because, because…
Too much talk, it’s time to show what scales can do.
When introducing a new piece, one of my first steps is to discuss the scale it’s based on (i.e. the key). Have the student play the scale, arpeggio and chords on each scale degree. Find the scale in the piece, identify scale runs, find the tonic note in the melody, and mark in what chords are used.
Give a student some time to get acquainted with a new scale by playing an accompaniment for him to improvise over. Give him ideas for using the scale such as going up in patterns of thirds, using different articulation, experimenting with different intervals from the scale to see what they sound like. By the end he will know the scale forwards, backwards, and upside down. PLUS it will have actually been a musical experience, not just a drill.
Use a new scale as a jumping off point for a new composition. Help your student to form a bass-line using a chord progression in the new key and write it out on staff paper for the left hand. Then play this new left hand part for them on repeat while they experiment with the scale to come up with a melodic motif. Show him how to use this motif to create a piece with a simple musical form such ABA. The new piece doesn’t need to be amazing; keep the atmosphere positive and encouraging. The most important thing is that he’s putting his new scale to use, and seeing first hand why it’s relevant. (If you haven’t heard it yet, Tim recently did a podcast with Daniel McFarlane on Student Composition Tactics, check it out for loads more ideas on how to get students composing!)
When all else fails, add a competitive edge! You could create a studio wide challenge, with 1 point for every scale learned at 80bpm, 2 points for 120bpm, and 3 points for 160bpm. The points could be recorded in the student’s folder, or on a wall chart. You could even set up a plastic tube for each student that you fill with tokens as they gain points. (In my own studio I use these scale level charts to track scale achievement, and award those who complete a level.)
One of these ideas on its own isn’t enough to see the big picture. To really make scales feel relevant to students, we need to use everything in our toolbox so that our students can see all the pieces of the jigsaw fitting and taking shape. Here’s an example of a lesson to show you how this could work:
Seem like a lot of work for one piece? It is! This may take a full 30 minute lesson, but it will be time extremely well spent. By the end of all that work, your student will not only know how to play the scale, but will have seen how it supplies them with freedom for creativity, and they definitely won’t come back the next week playing C naturals instead of C sharps! Try mixing up how you teach scales, I promise you won’t regret it!
When we teach scales in this way, we’re not just teaching a scale. We’re giving our students a glimpse at the maps that make up all music. A student who sees first hand what scales can do for us as musicians, is a student that’s happy to learn and practice their scales, and never again sees them as a chore to be got through.
Do you use any of the ideas above? Has something different worked for you? I’d love to hear about it!
Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. Nicola's Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. She also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies.