Scales, ugh! Why practice them?
Updated: May 27, 2021
I'll never forget when my seventeen-year-old self was getting ready for college and my teacher, Sequeira Costa, told me that I needed to practice scales for an hour a day. Ugh, really?? Here I was ready to learn the great classical repertoire, and he wanted me to spend an hour a day on scales, arpeggios, and Czerny exercises. Yuck!! He then told me that even his students preparing for major international competitions have to do the same thing. Ahh, but why???
After countless hours (that have translated into years at this point) of practicing these once-thought nuisances, here are the top reasons why I tell all of my students that it is essential to regularly practice scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and chord progressions.
1. They build your finger and hand strength.
Scales work on your agility in a closed position. Arpeggios work on agility in an open or stretched position (and strengthen that left-hand 4th finger!) Chords build strength in both open and closed positions. Don't we all want to wow our friends with our amazing technique??
2. They practice the thumb tucking under or a finger crossing over.
These physical motions are challenging and essential to good piano playing. Scales and arpeggios offer a chance to work on these motions.
3. They improve your coordination.
The first time anyone learns the C major scale hands together, it's usually rough! It's like patting your head and rubbing your belly. The hands are doing two totally different things at the same time. Unfortunately, coordination between the hands is at the crux of playing the piano, so you better master it.
4. They form patterns in your hands that you will use in pieces.
Say you started playing Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 545. Well, it's FULL of scales! If your eye recognizes the scale, then it can tell your hands that all those 16th notes aren't so bad. They're just a scale! If you've already practiced your scales for the day, then you're one step further toward mastering this piece!
5. They enhance your general geography of the piano.
Knowing the piano layout forward and backward with your eyes closed will improve your accuracy, consistency, and sight-reading. Who doesn't want these benefits??
6. They allow your brain to understand tonalities and key signatures.
This is a big plus that is often overlooked by students. For example, I was teaching last week, and an adult student asked me why she needed to practice a scale in order to improve her playing of the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata in C# Minor, Op. 27, no. 2. She said, "there are no scales in this piece!" She was correct in that statement, but she kept missing the notes of the key signature. Practicing technical exercises in the key of a particular piece will actually help wrap your brain (and fingers) around the key signature and you will make fewer mistakes. So, if you keep missing the sharps or flats of the key signature, you better take a step back and practice your scales!
7. They help you with improvisation.
If you understand keys and have scale and chord patterns formed in your hands, then improvising all of the sudden becomes a bit easier and more fun! YAY!!
In a nutshell, scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and chord progressions are the building blocks of tonality in Western music and piano technique. They're a part of a healthy practice diet, just like eating vegetables. Yes, I practice them every day (maybe not for an hour anymore — shhh, don't tell!), because even advanced players have to go back to the basics. So, I think you should join me and set aside a little time every day to practice those scales, too!