Scales and arpeggios have been an integral part of keyboard technique since before the piano was invented, and fingerings haven’t changed for hundreds of years. So then, why do scale and arpeggio books continue to sell in sheet music stores? I suppose it’s easier to have students buy these materials than it is to construct our own sheets. As for me, I never saw the point of having students buy books devoted to scale and arpeggio fingerings when I could just take 15 seconds to write fingerings in their notebooks.
But that’s 15 seconds of wasted time. Enough is enough. (Hey, it adds up!)
I finally took many hours to construct my own Scale and Arpeggio Fingering Sheet (click here to learn about ordering laminated scale/arpeggio fingering cards), and I’m here to share it with my fellow piano teaching colleagues as well as students everywhere, along with my Scale and Arpeggio Progress Sheet for teachers. Here are some notes that are not on the sheets:
- I have students do five-finger patterns on all black and white keys after they’ve gotten into the second level of their method books. They eventually play all 12 major and all 12 minor patterns, progressing chromatically and continually. For example, C minor would follow C major seamlessly, and instead of playing the final “C” to end the C minor pattern, students instead play D-flat and start the two major-minor patterns all over again. This ensures students learn the first five notes of every major and minor scale thoroughly before they actually start practicing scales. We work on clarity, speed, and sometimes do various dynamic or articulative patterns to work on musical techniques.
- When students have finished their third set of method books, this is when I transition to easy beginning repertoire like Leopold Mozart and Burgmuller. At this time, I begin students on their first C major scale (along with chords and arpeggios).
- I don’t believe in starting with one-octave scales. In a lot of ways, it’s actually easier to do four octaves. If students do only one octave, then they are still faced with the task of learning the extra crossing fingering the second time around learning scales. Then when they finally do two octaves, it’s almost worse: they only get one measly repetition on that extra crossing. Why not do four? Once a student can do two octaves, they can do ten!! It’s better to do more than less because of the extra repetition involved in each direction. The fingering sheet shows students how to achieve this four-octave scale in their first week – I recommend doing it ascending five times correctly every day, and descending five times correctly every day (don’t bother with ascending/descending in one swooping motion until the second week). I define one “correct” repetition to be one completely void of a single mistake – but students are free to go as slow as they want to get this to happen. That’s it! I’ve never had problems with students learning four octaves their first week and still can’t figure out why teachers prolong the pain of learning scales for years, all in the name of avoiding one simple week of doing four octaves! My students will often have their four-octave C major scale up to the speed of quarter = 40 (playing sixteenth notes, or four notes per tick) after two weeks.
- Sometimes students need to spend extra time on the first scale to develop the skill of playing with the metronome, four notes per tick. One strategy is to have students just focus on the first two ticks (the first five notes) of the scale, using correct fingering. Once that is mastered, go on to three ticks, and so on. Once five ticks is reached, the student is usually fine. However, this can be tricky since stopping in the middle of the scale can result in changed fingerings. In that case, I ask students to practice without a metronome for the entire week, accenting every fourth note (so, accenting C, G, D, etc.). I am careful to point out to students that it is a different finger that is accented each time, and they should NEVER accent C after the first note of the scale until the end of the scale, four octaves later. Once accents are mastered, students can remove the accents and return to syncing with the metronome (perhaps using the 2 ticks, 3 ticks, etc. method described earlier in this point). Developing the skill of listening to the metronome with the C scale also carries the unintended good consequence of learning the C scale inside out by the time it’s finished, so that students have a super easy time going on to other keys.
- The fingering sheet mostly progresses by the circle of fifths, except for going from B to F. I don’t believe that strictly following the circle of fifths carries as much pedagogical benefit to students as presenting the scales and arpeggios in the way that will give students the least amount of performance trouble. It only makes sense for the F scale to follow the B scale since they are fingering inversions of each other (F major right hand descending is the same fingering as B major left hand ascending).
- Regarding the chromatic scale fingering that employs the 4th finger but not the 5th: I explain to students that we don’t usually use this actual fingering on a long chromatic scale. Rather, we typically “sprinkle in” a 1-2-3-4 or a 1-2-3 once in a while into actual music in various chromatic scale passages, sometimes to allow for more speed, and/or to allow for ending the scale on a better finger. This fingering can be summarized by noticing that the thumb plays on every other white note.
- The diminished 7th arpeggios are presented, again, in an order that makes performance of them easiest. A°7 and E°7 feel the same, while C°7 and G°7 feel the same. B°7, D°7 and F°7 are each in their own world.
- Chromatic minor thirds represent the furthest I’m willing to go with students when it comes to chromatic double-note scales. I’ve encountered chromatic minor thirds many times in music. Chromatic major thirds, fourths and sixths are more rarely found, to the point where I don’t believe they merit their own devoted time learning them. I just tell students to learn them if/when they are actually encountered.
- As for diatonic scales in thirds, I don’t feel that learning them is difficult enough to merit its own special attention. The first time I encountered a diatonic scale in thirds, I had it memorized in 30 seconds – it was only a matter of a couple weeks to get it up to the required tempo.
- On the scale and arpeggio progress sheet, I write the month and year (such as “1/11” for January 2011) in the appropriate box when a student has achieved a certain speed on a certain scale or arpeggio. Scales are measured four notes per tick, while three-note arpeggios are measured three notes per tick. I measure four-note arpeggios at four notes per tick. This allows me to view the student’s entire technical history all in one place. My goal for students is to try to get them playing any chosen scale or arpeggio on the sheet at the tempo of 160 by the time they graduate from high school (with exception to chromatic thirds, for which 120 is sufficient).
- When a student reaches a new speed on the progress sheet, that new speed becomes their new goal for all future scales. If their scale reaches 140 and their arpeggio is still at 120, we do extra practicing on the arpeggio until it is caught up. I try to keep students’ scales and arpeggios balanced at the same speed.
- On the scale and arpeggio progress sheet, the birthdate area at the top comes in handy if you’re filling out a student registration card and forgot to ask the student how old they’ll be on the day of the event, and the begin date / previous teachers information is good for when that student goes on to college. I always convey as much as I can about my graduating seniors to their new teachers.
Beyond the technique listed on this sheet, I will often:
- … have students practice all major black key scales and arpeggios with the C major fingering. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been forced into the most hideous fingerings when playing music ranging from Beethoven to Schubert to Prokofiev. In a nutshell, the necessity of thumbs and pinkies on black notes presents itself when being asked to exceed a certain speed threshold on scales and arpeggios that don’t start/end with thumb/pinky.For example, as uncomfortable as it feels, one can play a 2-octave D-flat arpeggio much faster with C major arpeggio fingering than with the standard D-flat arpeggio fingering. This is because the evil of extra crossings in very rapid passages far exceeds the evil of playing close to the fallboard. We are asked quite often to do this in standard repertoire. It’s not that I want students to know any one scale with the C fingering – it’s just the general technique of crossing patterns (and the added physical resistance due to playing close to the fallboard) that I want students to grow comfortable to.
- … do Hanon 1-20 (one exercise at a time of course!) in the key of D-flat major, again, to get thumbs and pinkies more comfortable playing with control and clarity on black keys, and to get the other fingers comfortable playing closer to the fallboard where the keys offer significantly more resistance.
- … do a legato thirds exercise that consists of all 12 major five-finger patterns, hands together. With “C/E” meaning that C and E are played together, the exercise for the right hand would be: C/E – D/F – E/G – D/F – (repeat 4X) – C/E. The left hand would either play in parallel or contrary motion (I leave that up to the student – they can even switch each week). This is worth of doing since we see short 5-finger patterns of legato thirds all the time in music, such as the opening to the Beethoven’s Third Sonata (Op. 2 No. 3 in C, or the rapid alternating right hand thirds found in Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14.
- … do selected Czerny exercises from School of Velocity, Book 1 since they are not only good technique/control builders, but are also quite musical and FUN despite what some think.
Dang it. It will probably take a decade to recover all the hours I spent making the fingering sheet via saved 15-second intervals in lessons. But all joking finally aside, the real reason I made this sheet is because I believe the benefit of how the scales are presented is powerful for the student. Patterns between scales and arpeggios are shown with clarity that isn’t possible drawing on notebooks or by getting lost in a sea of pages and pages of scales and arpeggios written out in technique books found in music stores. It may even encourage students to explore new territory on their own out of sheer interest.
(c) 2011 Cerebroom