Inadequate Indoctrination (or, a practical instance demonstrating why scales matter)

Scales matter. Piano teachers are renowned for insisting that this is true, examination boards reward mastery of these patterns, and piano students compare speed and distance as if they are training for field and track.

I talked before about why I think scales matter, in my Scales as Propaganda post, and this post follows up a lot of the ideas I put forward there. One of the main ideas in the Scales as Propaganda post is that the reason scales are important is not for technical facility per se (finger strength, fluency, tonal control and so forth) but for a broader (and fundamentally imaginative) ideational and geographical facility with the diatonic patterns that underpin music from the Baroque through to the end of the Romantic period (chromaticisms notwithstanding).

What this means in practice is that if you know how to play the major scale in each of its 12 permutations you will have a reasonably high fluency in sight reading music written in a major tonality. If you don’t know how to play this major scale pattern in each of its 12 permutations then you will surely struggle when you find yourself in an unfamiliar transposition.

I’ve just experienced a startling reinforcement of this principle with my wonderful post-Grade 8 student who has been working on Beethoven’s Opus 90 for just the past 8 days. Opus 90 is a 2 movement sonata, 1st movement in E minor and triple time, 2nd movement in E Major and duple time. This is a hard play if you don’t have big hands, but this student can play the tenths without even stretching so all the technical challenges faced by the normally-proportioned 16 year old are obliterated for this particular student purely through a happy coincidence of human growth hormone and genetics.

Not only this, but the sonata suits this student just perfectly on an emotional and communicative level as well.

So I had high expectations when the student returned after just a week of working on the sonata – expectations that were not disappointed as he played through some number of pages of the first movement. Learning was solid, and a grasp of the broader structure was already emerging. He had isolated passages that were technically challenging and had already put a strategy in place to master these passages over the next week or so.

But then we turned to the second movement and he said ruefully, “well, I haven’t put it hands together yet”. To be honest, his achievements with the first movement were already so impressive that any teacher would not have been surprised to have the student say “I didn’t actually get to practice the second movement”, but I must admit that I was surprised to hear that he had decided to attempt this second movement with the hands playing separately. The second movement is not wildly difficult to sight read per se – especially if one chooses a very relaxed tempo right from the outset. To choose to separate the musical information into ‘hands’ rather than moderating the degree of difficulty through reduced tempo is quite a significant choice at this standard of performance and learning.

“Have you ever played anything in E Major before?” I asked, and he laughed and said, “no!”. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he absolutely hasn’t – but he has never learned a piece in E Major with an awareness that he is learning a piece in E Major, and he has no template for thinking through what playing a piece in the E Major pattern might feel like or look like. This makes the task of sight reading this second movement, even at a snail’s pace, quite beyond his comfort zone or even his ‘challenge’ zone. Every note is a mystery – black or white? – and his fingers have no sense of flow around these black and white note patterns.

“Do you know how to play the E Major scale?” I asked. “I’m not sure” was the response. Now, I’m absolutely certain he will have played E Major in contrary motion at some early stage of his pianistic career, but the learning of the scale pattern was not sufficient to connect with the real repertoire context of learning a piece in this key.

Rather than spend time in the lesson working on two or four bars separate hands (the lamination technique) we ignored the movement altogether, instead spending a few minutes exploring E Major scale patterns.

This week he will be practicing E Major in similar motion an octave apart, 3rds apart and 6ths apart. He’ll be practicing E Major in contrary motion with both hands starting on E, with the right hand starting on G sharp while the left starts on E, and then with the left hand starting on G sharp while the right starts on G. He will then play through the root position triads of the E Major scale pattern through a one octave pattern ascending and descending. If he gets time he will then proceed to practice these triads in their first and second inversions.

Our goal this week is to completely familiarise him with what the E Major pattern feels like (and looks like) in any number of manifestations. Our theory is that once he has invested a couple of hours (at least) of his life into dwelling within the confines of E Major-ness he will return to the Opus 90 second movement completely capable of thinking through the sight reading challenges it poses. This, we further theorise, will save him potentially ten hours of tedious practice, working hand at a time, note by note, mastering small gestures and phrases rather experiencing (and learning) the overarching melodic lines and harmonic movements.

Maybe one week, even with 20+ minutes a day, won’t be enough of an immersion in E Major to make this transition from foreigner to native, but I think the odds are good. The pattern is being explored sideways, backwards, inside out as well as front on and in harmony. It’s an interesting experiment with the good that knowing a scale can bring – and I’ll keep you informed!

11 thoughts on “Inadequate Indoctrination (or, a practical instance demonstrating why scales matter)

  1. This sort of familiarity with the scales is so important! I’ve been assigning my students scales based on the pieces they happen to be working on. And over the summer, I have them work on the ‘scale of scales’, Cc, Dbdb, Ee, Ff, etc.

    And thanks for the reminder about playing scales in 3rd, 10th, and 6ths. It’s also fun to play 3 against 2 with the hands starting 1 octave apart and ending 2 octaves apart.

    But I wasn’t sure what you meant by root position triads. Do you go up like E-G#-B-E, F#-A-C#-F#, G#-B-D#-G#, or are you only using the I, IV and V chords?

    Looking forward to hearing more…

    • I mean E-G#-B then F#-A-C# then G#-B-D# then A-C#-E and so forth up and down every note of a one octave E Major scale. Then do it in inversions (three-note chords, not four). A good next level is to do it in both hands at once, then to do it in contrary motion! And so forth…. Harder to execute than it sounds.

      • Of course! That sounds great. Definitely going to start using it. Thanks Elissa!

  2. Transposing pieces into other keys is really valuable too, as it assists them aurally as well as geographically. It is important for students to “think in E major” rather than think “I need to add four sharps” and they will learn the quirks of E major as opposed to A major. At Grade Three level, I ask my students to play about six simple pieces, one a week, that they transpose into keys up to three sharps and three flats.

    I am intrigued about what you mean by lamination…

    • Rebecca, I meant to link the word ‘lamination’ to another post!!! Woops! I’ll rectify this (which will make it slightly less intriguing!!).

      Meantime, yes, thinking in E Major is not at all the same thing as thinking ‘add four sharps’ – and in fact I would say that if students are thinking ‘add four sharps’ they are barely thinking in major patterns at all, but instead are thinking from a dots-on-the-page starting point. Students need to be able to navigate the key, not ‘apply’ it….

  3. hi.. i’m learning piano at the moment… it’s been almost two years now. well, i think i have similar experience to the student that you wrote about. i can play beethoven’s pathetique 2nd mov, chopin waltz op 64 no 2 (still need to improve), mozart k545. within these 2 years, i’ve already got 3 piano teachers. all of my piano teachers were surprised that i could play such pieces although i’ve just started piano lessons. but honestly, i know my weaknesses.i have only learned the c major scale recently and the rest of the scales, i know nothing about them. when i like a piece, i’d really2 put my heart and mind into it. i’d practise night n day to master that piece within a short period of time.. sometimes, i’m scared to take piano exam cuz i don’t know a lot about music theory. i’m way far behind but my teacher thinks that i can take grade 5 piano. i dunno why i’m writing this but i just wanna share with you knowing that you’re a piano teacher. i wanna pursue in this field but i don’t know if i have enough talent to further my study in music.okay, gotta stop babbling.. i have a youtube account that i use to keep track of my piano progress..hope you can check my vids and give some suggestions for improvement..

    • Nadia, thanks for sharing some of your life story, and good luck with your piano lessons (and juggling 3 teachers – yikes!). Talk to any or all of your teachers about your interests and concerns and see what advice they give you: sitting an exam can provide some useful feedback, but make sure you sit an exam that is within your ability so that you actually enjoy the experience!

  4. Elissa,

    It’s good to see someone elaborating on the need for knowing scales for more than just the sheer act of being able to play them. While I am not as attached the ‘classical’ piano world as I’d like to be, I do teach jazz piano and scales play a very important part in the creative process in what I teach my students.

    From a theoretical standpoint, we explore the relationship of scales (and modes) to certain harmonies, construction of extended chords using degrees of the scale, and explore jazz solos from select artists and talk about their choice of tones over certain chords.

    Thank you driving the point home. Either way, it is about ‘navigating the key.’


    • Ah yes, I completely forgot to report back! The experiment went very well indeed – two weeks of various scale patterns and chord patterns, and the movement did become much easier to grasp. Ideally we would have worked through some repertoire in E Major at a much easier level, but we didn’t in this case, and the key seems to be quite secure simply through some serious scale pattern immersion….

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