Rhian Morgan

Running and jumping: scales and arpeggios

9:00, 1st November 2016

How do piano teachers motivate their students to work on boring old scales and arpeggios? Rhian Morgan finds out

How do you encourage your pupils to practise their piano scales and arpeggios? Teachers and examiners may be convinced of their value, but to many young players the appeal is often less than obvious.

Teacher and performer Murray McLachlan works at scales and arpeggios with a light touch. ‘Forget about quantity and accuracy – begin with a sense of context and a love of sound and imagination. Scales and arpeggios may be the building blocks of all Western music but they have a dreadful reputation among young pianists because during short lessons, stressed-out teachers often forget to relate their complexities and demands to music.

‘Celebrate a particular colour. Imagine the scale being played by a stately elephant, a playful kitten, or a lazy, expansively corpulent bear. Encourage creativity by getting students to play a scale in one hand while improvising in the other with chords or rhythmic patterns on just a few notes. Above all, de-stress.

‘Scales and arpeggios are neutral and basic in isolation: they can become positive and energising to every aspect of music-making when they are taken calmly, as excellent warm-up material prior to working on studies and repertoire.

‘They come to life when they are respected as music rather than as exercises. Singing them before and during their execution can be liberating. They also deserve to be rhythmically harnessed and shaped. Try feeling a pulse as you play then. Dance internally and find a way to inhale and exhale as you move up and down the keyboard. Make up words if you wish – anything that adds human, artistic and imaginative flavour to their preparation is good news!’

Bernard King, an examiner at ABRSM – purveyor of so many permutations of scales and arpeggios – emphasises the importance for more advanced players to be able to play in all keys. ‘If a pupil has been well taught, and understands the construction, there should not be a problem adding a few keys with each grade,’ he says.

‘The problem is when they are not started early enough. Scales and arpeggios are really not something that can be left until the last minute but I’m afraid too many people do.’

Steven Berryman is director of music at City of London School for Girls, and a composer and music education consultant



  • Get students to think about how they’re sitting when practising. They should be upright, with a relaxed neck, and aiming to make the best sound they can.
  • If you’re learning a new pattern together, try ‘say then play’ – saying the note name immediately followed by playing the note. This helps to slow down the thinking process. Move on to ‘say two then play two’, ‘say three then play three’ until pupils are able to speak the entire scale before they play it.
  • Play around with rhythms to make the scales even: play them dotted (long-short) and reversed, (short‑long).
  • Be strict about fingering, and ask students to record themselves: are there any lumps or bumps?
  • Aim for scales to be as musical as pieces are: play with a good sound and give the scale some shape and direction by using a slight crescendo and diminuendo on the way up and down.
  • In the higher grades it can feel like there are a huge number of scales and arpeggios to learn. Divide them up to play each one over two weeks; then get everything played in a week; then over three days. Ultimately students could play their entire scale book in one practice session.

Melanie Spanswick is a teacher, writer, pianist and composer based in Windsor

  • Establish a practice schedule and work through it methodically, carefully and with absolute focus.
  • Fully absorb every key signature. Students shouldn’t blindly practise E major without knowing that it contains four sharps and is related to C minor! Immediate recognition builds confidence, so when the examiner asks for a particular scale, they won’t get flustered.
  • Fingering is crucial and, without strict adherence, playing at speed will be a challenge. Teach consistent scale fingerings from the outset, practise separate hands, and be aware of the note patterns associated with each key.
  • Coordination is often an issue: for evenness, get students to use their fingertips and play deeply into the keys (key-bedding), using plenty of finger power. Play slowly, generating a full tone or sound, by employing flexible wrists and arms: this will help build up finger strength. When speed is added, use a lighter touch which will – hopefully – reveal even, crisp scales.
  • Occasionally, try playing the left hand more powerfully than the right, as it is sometimes weaker, which can equate to uneven playing.
  • Strive for rhythmical and musical scales and arpeggios. Experiment with the metronome, and incorporate accents, diverse rhythms, and a variety of touches to produce clear articulation.
  • Find any way to start enjoying scales: they are little adventures up and down the keyboard!

Murray McLachlan is a pianist, writer and teacher. He is chair of the UK branch of the European Piano Teachers Association, head of keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and a senior tutor at the RNCM


  • Start with a love of sound and tone production and work on internally hearing or singing a beautiful line.
  • Stimulate yours and your pupil’s imaginations to capture many different colours, characterisations and approaches to the same scale.
  • Relax! Enjoy the tactile pleasure and physical comfort of beginning a practice session with scales and arpeggios.
  • Be creative – try different rhythms, speeds and dynamics. Try playing chords or rhythmic ostinatos in one hand while practising a ‘straight’ scale or arpeggio in the other. Make up words to sing and say with each note of a scale.
  • Sing, dance and breathe as you work.
  • Finally, relate all scales and arpeggios directly to pieces and studies currently being practised.

Fiona Lau is a regular MT reviewer and teaches piano, from beginner to diploma, in Chelmsford. She has also studied psychology for musicians

  • I have a list of 100 ways to play scales: legato, staccato, straight, swung, crescendo up, diminuendo down, crotchets in one hand and quavers in another, different rhythms, eyes open, eyes shut, play them while you tell me what you had for breakfast, and so on.
  • If students can play them all these ways, they will be secure, and pupils will find them easier when they encounter them in ‘real’ music.
  • B minor is always a sticky scale for Grade 3 pupils so we ‘block’ the scale: playing all the notes in one finger position, and then playing it as written. I also put Blu-Tack on the relevant black keys and get pupils to put the rubber pencil ends on all the notes of the scale.
  • I start by using Frederick Stocken’s Scale Shapes books. It’s also essential to link scales to pieces and to theory, so I use Alan Bullard’s Joining the Dots books, and pictures of keyboards for pupils to write in the notes of scales.
  • Once a scale is learnt I improvise using that scale and also secure it using Get Ready for Major Scale Duets, by Rossi and McArthur.
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