Scales and arpeggios – love them or hate them?

Why not enjoy your practising your scales and arpeggios? Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – explains the many benefits of getting to grips with these examination essentials. 

‘Now for the scales and arpeggios, C major hands together please’, the examiner smiles glancing at the student who is waiting with bated breath…

This is a typical scenario when pupils are faced with scales and arpeggios in an examination. Most pianists don’t like scales or scale practice. Some ask if they are really necessary.

For me, they are the most important part of exam practice. Not only do they teach piano students much about playing at speed (or fast passagework) but, if practised correctly, they also build up finger technique or firmer fingers, they can hone good tone production, and they provide the opportunity to learn every single key and key signature. And I feel they should be approached as an enjoyable part of the practice process.

I love scales, and particularly relish watching my hands running up and down the keyboard. Technique is essential for good playing and it really means the ability to get around the notes accurately. Scales and arpeggios are important for all of the following reasons:

  • Regular practice of scales and arpeggios can develop excellent hand co-ordination. Absolute co-ordination is paramount between both hands as they flow up and down the keyboard. Focusing on the left hand as you play can help you to ‘hear’ it clearly and subsequently finger articulation will hopefully become clearer, and eventually, the left-hand will easily keep pace with the right.
  • They can establish accurate fingering as in order to play them rapidly, you need to be very precise with your fingers. The fingerings should ideally be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit which will be repeated in every octave as you move up the keyboard. Aim to concentrate on remembering where the fourth finger sits in every octave; it’s surprising how this can help finger memory.
  • Scales and arpeggios can form the basis of firmer fingers, sometimes known as ‘finger strength’; every finger is used when playing scales. Play on the finger-tips and practise with a deeper touch at slower speeds.
  • They can improve keyboard geography; much of the keyboard needs to be covered quickly building a sense of keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing. When tackling four-octave scales, ensure you begin as far down in the bass as possible. This makes it easier to remember where to stop and turn around at the top!
  • Scales and arpeggios help the student learn all 24 keys – which is no mean feat. It’s an extremely useful and vital feature in itself. To assist memory, study the circle of fifths; a chart which clearly sets out all the keys in relation to each other.
  • They can establish a strong sense of pulse and articulation, which are both crucial for playing the piano. Try practising with a metronome. Start with a very slow speed – one ‘tick’ to every note, in order to really ‘place’ each note rhythmically. After a while set a faster pulse, and slightly accent the first group of every four notes (or every three if playing three-octave scales). And, finally, practise up to speed.

When you next sit down to do some practice, why not start your session with scales and arpeggios? This way you’ll not only get them over and done with, but you will also practice them when you are fresh and receptive. And you may just end up enjoying them.

You can find out more in the technique section at the beginning of Melanie’s piano course, Play it again: PIANO, published by Schott Music. These volumes contain over 60 piano pieces from a wide range of historical periods, and each piece contains copious practice ideas and suggestions.

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.



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