I Hate Teaching Scales

There. I've said it.

What about you? C'mon. Tell the truth.

When you assign a new scale are you already dreading listening to it the next week?  I am.

Perhaps you'll understand me better if you know that I love playing scales. I just don't like teaching them. At least I didn't until now.

Here's a recording of me playing one of my favorite etudes - full of twists and turns. You can find it in this book of Burgmuller Etudes.

Each key has its own quirks and traits. Its own feel and flavor.

Unfortunately, conveying this information to students has often been an uninspired, tedious task for both student and teacher.

There are scads of reasons it hasn't been any fun to teach scales.

For starters, there's no positive feedback. If you're lucky enough to play a new scale correctly, it sounds just like every other scale you've ever played. Fingering problems don't show up when they occur. It's usually not until several notes after a fingering error that one plays an audible wrong note.

Watch as I play, very badly, my least favorite scale, G Major. The wrong fingering happens as soon as I cross my thumb under — I don't put my 4th finger up on the F#. Yet I don't hear that error until four notes later when I realize I've just missed the F#. (After I mangle it, I show it done correctly.)

Traditionally, scales are taught one key at a time, one octave at a time, one hand at a time. Slowly the hands are put together until some kind of fluidity, or at least tolerability, develops. The scale length is increased to two, then four octaves. 

Teaching scales this way does little to develop comfortable playing in any key. It doesn't foster a love for the way a given key feels under your fingers. Ab major doesn't feel cuddly and cozy. D Major doesn't feel bright and business-like.  Instead, they all feel precarious. Not to mention the role the metronome plays in increasing anxiety for students who are already overwhelmed with auditory stimulation.

I grew determined to find another way. I challenged myself to come up with a new recipe for developing comfort in every key. 

I needed a step between Five-Finger Patterns and scales. The jump to one-octave scales felt too big and awkward. (Plus, I kept avoiding teaching those first scales.) I wanted my students to achieve comfort in each key by first familiarizing themselves with its feel. What's unique about a G Major scale? Where are its curves? What makes it feel good?

Here's another way to present a G Major Scale: 

 This example from  SMART SCALES  is rhythmically and physically planned to help the student   enjoy   playing a G Major scale. The accidental is written on the note so it's can't be missed. And it sounds like music! Plenty of fingering helps the student negotiate the curves of the melody.

This example from SMART SCALES is rhythmically and physically planned to help the student enjoy playing a G Major scale. The accidental is written on the note so it's can't be missed. And it sounds like music! Plenty of fingering helps the student negotiate the curves of the melody.

 This left hand example doesn't use conventional fingering, but shows the F# as part of a more natural four-finger group. Other examples in this set use the conventional fingering, but let's face it — the traditional G Major fingering is pretty arbitrary. 

This left hand example doesn't use conventional fingering, but shows the F# as part of a more natural four-finger group. Other examples in this set use the conventional fingering, but let's face it — the traditional G Major fingering is pretty arbitrary. 

I originally designed SMART SCALES as sight reading materials, but I found that I was actually assigning them, one key per week, to almost every one of my students. And they were loving them. Eight-year-old kids, Stanford Engineering Professors, teenagers, every last one of my students plays them with a grin on their face. I suspect it's because they like how they feel and sound. They like the sensation and curve of each scale. They appreciate the incremental challenges presented in melodies. They have a strong preference for these instead of scales served in "Eight notes up and eight notes right back down" portions. 

Let's take E Major. It's one of my favorite scales. 

 Here's a beginning example for E Major. Notice that the top of the scale is isolated and gives a student a chance to feel comfortable with it before moving down to the more complicated crossing section. 

Here's a beginning example for E Major. Notice that the top of the scale is isolated and gives a student a chance to feel comfortable with it before moving down to the more complicated crossing section. 

 This example gives the student time to build up a little momentum before trying to play the entire scale.

This example gives the student time to build up a little momentum before trying to play the entire scale.

I wanted to let my students experience the contours of the scales under their fingers. To stop worrying about playing scales hands together are ridiculous speeds. Most of the time, scales don't show up played hands together at a breakneck tempo. (Yes, yes, I play the Emperor Concerto and I know about the third movement. If your students need that skill there's plenty of room between this Tuesday's lesson in the method book and the concert at Carnegie Hall.)

Let's face it. Most of us teach normal kids who need scaffolded steps for learning the basics.

Each new key begins with four lines written without a key signature (all the accidentals written.) The next four lines are the exact same examples with a key signature. It's a wonderful opportunity to teach or review key signatures and exactly what they do.

I experimented with different time signatures and found that 6/8 made the most pleasing melodies. Its built-in lilt encouraged the students to play with movement, while the length of the dotted quarters offered them moments to pause and refocus. I also think that eighth notes are much easier to read than quarters. The beams help students see the direction of the notes.

In the process of playing a series of beautiful, interesting, idiomatic melodies, my students are learning their scales. Do you and your students need to do the same thing?

Take a look at Diane Hidy's Smart Scales Book One.

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Note:
This product was briefly sold as my Sight Reading Book Three. When I realized this would be an entire set of products, I changed the name and began a new series. There are a few updates and corrections in the new version.