Scales for fun and dexterity
By Margaret Brandman
      When I started out playing the piano the only scale manuals available were the dreariest publications you can imagine.  Each page had the same look - a ladder of notes extending from 1 to 4 octaves, with fingering written in for every single note and the only real distinguishing feature on the page being the key signature.  When students approached these scales on the basis of note-names, this entailed remembering the name of every note, as well as all the sharps and flats needed for the scale.  If accidentals were written in front of each note, then remembering each note name was not so crucial, as they could alter each note as it came along in the scale ladder. However the page looked even busier and more confusing!
        Eventually, through years of hard slog, my fellow students and I began to remember the scales without needing to refer to the scale manual by which time the keyboard patterns began to make sense and we could more easily remember the scale via the keyboard topography.
      So some years ago, I thought 'why not cut to the chase' and present the scale shapes in terms of the keyboard pathway, with minimal fingering allowing the scales to be taught in chunks.   The resulting book was called Pictorial Patterns for Keyboard Scales and Chords.
These are some of the many ways to make scale learning 'funtastic' :
  1. The first of the strategies I have devised is a technique called 'block out' in which eight white notes of the scale range are depressed with all fingers except the thumbs. This places the fifth fingers of both hands on the tonic and upper tonic notes of the scale.  Then the white keys are replaced by sharps and flats of the key signature, always working in key signature order, which helps reinforce key signature sequence, a good drill for theory purposes as well!  Once this is done, the entire keyboard scale pathway is revealed and observations can be made about the groups of black and white keys.
  1. The next strategy is to teach the scales in logical groups (not necessarily agreeing with the examination requirements for each grade).  I have found that teaching the major scales in this sequence greatly aids memory of the keyboard pattern and the fingerings.
                                                              i.      Group One - C G D A E
                                                            ii.      Group Two - F & B
                                                          iii.      Group Three - Bb Eb Ab Db
                                                           iv.      Group Four - F#
  1. As soon as all twelve scales have been learnt over the range of one octave I encourage students to play them around the cycle of fifths, finishing each scale by playing the root position triad, which, by taking the upper note of the chord - the Dominant degree, automatically provides the tonic of the next scale.  By practicing scales in this manner, students see the connections between the keys and the fingering groups.  I challenge them to play the sequence in under two minutes. (The two-minute noodle scale practice!) The feeling of self satisfaction when they can complete the cycle efficiently and quickly, is a reward in itself. Note: I teach the 12 major scales over the range of one octave, without the complication of the two-octave fingering, over a few months, so that all the keys are covered in the first couple of years of learning, rather than over a more extended time frame. This helps their understanding of music and the process of learning new pieces enormously.  Once this has been done, I teach scales over the two octave range as needed. 
  1. Some fascinating aspects of the scale pathways on the keyboard, provide intriguing ways to aid memorization. In my Pictorial Patterns book I use graphic patterns to show D Major scale is the photographic negative of Db Major.  The positions in the scales which were black in the D scale, (F# and C#), reverse and become the white notes for Db major.(F and C) There are eight pairs of scales which have this feature.

  1. A similar phenomenon occurs with triads - E Major ( white-black- white)  is the photographic negative of Eb (black-white-black) and so on.
  1. Fingering commonality:  many scales use mirror fingers in groups.  I have coined the words 'fingering commonality' to describe this phenomenon.   For instance every time a group of two black notes is played in the scales  of B, F# and D b major both hands use fingers 32 (LH) and 23 (RH) . When you hold just these fingers of both hands up in the air they form the 'peace' sign.  In the book, I demonstrate several of these fingering chunks and how they apply to many different scales. Thinking of the scale fingerings in chunks, simplifies the skill of scale and arpeggio fingering enormously. 
(Jacqueline Brandman demonstrating the 'peace sign')
  1. Once the student has learned the major scale over two octaves, a direct connection can be made to the relative minor scales and the modes.  All the church modes including the Aeolian Mode (now known as the natural minor scale) can be seen as a segment of the two octave major scale pattern. 
  1. The major scale can be commenced on any of the scale degrees, and the result will be one of the Ecclesiastical modes. For instance, beginning any major scale on the second degree, will produce the Dorian mode. Students find this a fun way of practicing the scales, and more to the point this is how composers frequently use scale runs in the pieces.  Finding a scale beginning on the tonic degree in a piece of music is not always the norm. 
  1. A fun way to teach all forms of the minor scale, is to use the block-out technique. While holding down all the notes of the scale, alter just the sixth and seventh degrees to produce the melodic or harmonic versions of the minor scale.
  1. Don't forget to include the practice of modern chords in their block, broken and arpeggiated forms.  These chords accustom student's hands to a variety of spacings between the fingers so that they can conquer more unusual patterns. In his workshops around the country,  Australian Jazz pianist and composer Kerin Bailey demonstrates a practice routine including the seven standard four-note chords. 
    ( I have been recommending the same sequence to my students for many years and as a result it is also included in Pictorial Patterns)
  1. Combine scales and chords.  To really get to know the sounds of the scales and chords, it is good to sound the chord in the left hand and play the scale against it in the right, or even to reverse hands and do this the other way.  For instance:- Cmaj7 chord can be sounded while either the C Major scale or the C Lydian scale is played. Each of the scales gives a slightly different tone colour.  Cm7 can be sounded while the Dorian Mode on C is sounded as it blends very well. Some jazz tutors suggest that you play the scale over the range of a 9th to work it in with a two or four bar passage in 4/4 time. I find that if the scale is extended to the 9th, it tends to trigger more ideas for improvisation.
As we know there are many technical reasons to teach scales, chords and arpeggios - security, finger strength, speed and agility etc, but I find the motivation to practise them comes from the realization that they are included in so many pieces, and that once learned, whole chunks of many compositions are 'ready to fly'.    I make sure students put on their Sherlock Holmes hats and analyse the pieces they are learning to 'spot that scale!'  Then they can call on the pre- learnt information to come forth.
I hope the Funtastic ideas presented in this article will create interest in the intriguing topic of scale patterns and scale practice for students and teachers alike.