Monday Mailbag – When to Start Teaching Scales

When do you start teaching scales? I have been using the “Piano Adventures” method books and really like them, but they don’t teach scales or time signatures until four books in, and I am debating about teaching younger students scales before they encounter them in their music. How soon do you start introducing scales and key signatures?

Actually, I teach my students their first scale before we even begin lessons. They learn it when I do their initial interview/assessment. Really. They learn the pentatonic scale by way of participating in a black key improvisation with me. The only catch is that I don’t call it that; I just tell them that they can play any black keys on their end of the piano while I play black keys on my end. The reality is that students are learning scales and keys from the moment they learn their very first piece on the piano. They, of course, don’t understand the underlying theory yet, but we as teachers must be aware of this reality so that we can lead students to a real and relevant knowledge of what scales and keys are in the first place.

Anyone who has been reading here very long knows that I rarely use theory books. This is because I want students to understand theory concepts as being integral and irremovable from the music they are playing – whether improvised, by ear, or from a printed sheet. I would much rather have them transpose a simple rote piece to other keys on the piano, or figure out the notes of a particular scale by picking out a favorite tune by ear and then add harmony, or improvise on a given set of notes to develop an aural awareness of the way a key sounds, rather than merely play ascending and descending scales with a metronome. However, despite the fact that I would rather do this doesn’t mean that that is what I do.

I was largely inspired in this new way of thinking by the Pattern Play improvisation teaching intensive that I attended this summer. Even though I’ve moved away from teaching scales as consistently as before, I do still believe that there is a great deal of value for students in knowing what a scale is, how to construct it, and what fingering to use for maximum fluency. Now that I’ve spent three paragraphs not answering your question, I suppose it’s sufficiently clear that I am in a transitional mode in my philosophy and approach to teaching scales and keys. :-) That said, here are 7 goals that I work toward with every student regarding scales and keys (roughly in sequential order):

  1. Understand whole steps and half steps.
  2. Understand that every type of scale is constructed of a series of half and or whole steps in a particular order.
  3. Know how to construct Major and minor pentascales and Major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales.
  4. Understand relative Major and minor keys.
  5. Know how to play the primary and secondary triads in every key.
  6. Be able to identify what key a piece is in based on the key signature and context.
  7. Be able to play multi-octave scales with accurate fingering and musicality.

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Monday Mailbag – How to Teach Key Signatures

I’m starting to wonder if my method of teaching both major and minor key signatures is too cumbersome for my students. So I have been researching more intuitive approaches. When do you start teaching key signatures and how do you introduce and drill them so that they are second nature?

This is an area that I start drilling into my students almost from day one…and keep drilling for the rest of their lives! I think I’m particularly passionate about it because when I attended an intensive music course my senior year of high school, my biggest question was how to figure out what key a piece was in. After covering two years worth of college theory in three weeks I went home finally understanding the concept of keys and key signatures. Imagine my shock a short while later when I uncovered several years worth of old theory books where I had dutifully identified dozens of key signatures throughout the lessons! Obviously there was a complete disconnect between the theory work I was doing on paper and the music I was playing. (This is part of the reason why I rarely use theory books with my students…)

Within the first several months of lessons I introduce my students to pentascales. As they learn their pieces, I often ask them if they can tell what pentascale notes the piece uses. This is the preliminary terminology I use to pave the way for discussing key signatures later. Even with simple pieces, students can understand the concept of playing the same pattern using the notes from a different pentascale. For example, an early level piece in the C-pentascale can be transposed to the G-pentascale and will sound almost the same if they play the same pattern of notes.

Similarly, I encourage students to pick out familiar tunes by ear from the first lesson. A simple rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can become a pretty exciting challenge when I assign the student to see how many different keys they can start on to play the same tune! This, again, can lead to a discussion of what pentascale a tune is using.

Honestly, the concept of key signatures usually comes quite a bit later and is much less important to me than that a student understands the concept of musical keys and scales – both Major and minor (part of the reason why I made and gave each of my students a Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys). I thoroughly dislike the practice of teaching students to identify key signatures by looking to the second to last flat or figuring up a half step from the last sharp, etc. This does nothing to aid their understanding of what it actually means for a piece to be in a particular key.

Sequentially, I usually work around the Circle of 5ths to learn the scales, primary triads, and chord progressions, and incorporate Major and relative minor keys as seems best for each student. It’s not perfectly systematic for every student, but I do hope that by the time they are encountering key signatures in their music they have a solid enough foundation of musical scales and the concept of keys that they quickly grasp the idea of key signatures.

This is a huge topic, so I’d love to have input from others! What do you find works best in regards to teaching your students about key signatures and what they mean?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Giveaway of The Pianists’ Book of Musical Scales and Keys!

It’s always challenging trying to come up with a creative and musical gifts for students each year, but I love trying to think of something that will be special and useful. After quite a bit of brainstorming and reflecting on what students have appreciated most in the past, I settled on the idea of making a customized book for each of them. The students who received the Manuscript Books I made them several years ago love them and still use them all the time for compositions and other musical projects, so this year I decided to make each of them their own Book of Musical Scales and Keys.

It was one of my students who first gave me the idea of designing keyboard scale fingering diagrams and many of my students have used them since. A special book for each of them with a complete set of major, natural minor, and harmonic minor musical scales and keys on the staff with keyboard fingering diagrams below seemed like a perfect next step!

[Special thanks to Am Y for the use of her beautiful piano photo for the cover!]

As a way of wishing everyone a Happy New Year, I am giving away 3 copies of The Pianists’ Book of Musical Scales and Keys! Just leave a comment below for your chance to win a copy. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator on Thursday, January 12, at noon (CST). Enjoy!

Custom Design Anything with These Fabulous Music Note and Key Signature Stickers!

Jeana, of the Sing a New Song blog, has created another wonderful resource that is perfect for custom designing any type of flashcard. Her music staff note/key signature stickers can be printed directly onto address-sized labels and stuck on any piece of paper or other object. The possibilities for such a great teaching tool are endless!

Staff Note Stickers

A Student Success with Scales Patterns and Improv Book!

How do you know if a particular book or approach is helping a student? Well, when the student tells you that they think the book has really helped them, that’s a pretty good indication. :-) If only all students would just come right out and say so!

One of my older beginners has been using Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book 1 by Barbara Kreader this year and commented several weeks ago that she could see that it had really helped her in a number of different areas. It’s not her favorite thing in the world, but seeing the benefits for herself has motivated her to keep working through it. I used the book with a piano camp group one summer, but this was my first time to use it for an individual lesson. Here are some of the specific areas she mentioned:

  • Listening – since she tends naturally to be more visual than aural, playing along with the CD helped her hear the different parts and how they fit together.
  • Theory – each unit focuses on one key and has an improv exercise, a scale, chord progression, arpeggio, and a short piece in that key. She said this helped her understand the different keys much better.
  • Rhythm – this is an area that has been more challenging since Day One, so using this book helped her come a long way in being able to keep the beat going and in working toward accurate rhythms.

This was so helpful for me to know! I can use her input when I start using this book with other students – which of course I’m going to now! :-) And perhaps this will be one way that I can start addressing my technique troubles that I mentioned yesterday. We’ll see!

Game: Key Signature Line-Up

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Mailbag post about Finding Time for Games, this week I’ll share some of the games that I’ve been using in my studio this year.

This is a really simple game! First, have the student line up the key signatures in order from the least number of sharps or flats to the greatest. Then, they place a scale block in front of each key signature to identify the name of the key. You can see in the above picture that I had this older student identify both the Major and minor key. I try to emphasize the Circle of 5ths over and over so that my students use that to figure out their keys.

As an aside, I never use mnemonic devices or the other little tricks for figuring out key names. (Although sometimes they learn them at school and them come and proudly announce to me that they found out another way to identify their keys…at which point they often proceed to confuse themselves trying to remember which trick went with which keys, etc. :-) )

But I digress…back to the game! After they’ve lined them up correctly, we proceed to phase two of the game. I mix up the key signatures and then place them on the music rack in a random order and the student proceeds to line up the scale blocks again, matching the key names to the corresponding key signatures. If it’s a student who loves competition, I often time them to see how fast they can place them all correctly, then let them try one more time to see if they can beat their previous time. Lots of fun and easily adapted to a range of levels by doing only Major or minor keys or just using a few key signatures at a time.

Key Signature Theme Progress

Has anyone else been emphasizing key signatures this month? Or have you tried another theme for the month? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what has worked well, what hasn’t worked well, and any other ideas for improvement. Also, does anyone have ideas for future themes?

Also…just so you know, I scheduled my spring break for next week and I’ve decided to take the week off of blogging as well. Originally, I had hoped to attend the MTNA Conference in Atlanta, but that fell through. It’s probably a good thing, too, because I have so many things on my to-do list! I’m hoping to get a lot accomplished. We’ll see!

Group Music Class – Songs from Around the World and Key Signature Games

Tuesday evening, we held our fifth Private Eye Workshop of the year. Our theme for this one was Folk Songs from Around the World. Here are some picture highlights from the event:


In keeping with our Key Signature theme for the month, we started out with a game. One at a time, I had each student volunteer to be timed as they lined up the key signature flashcards in order from 0 sharps to 7 sharps, then arrange the corresponding key names below each card. I timed each student as they took their turn and kept track on a white board. The observing students watched with rapt attention as they awaited their turn. They all wanted to beat the fastest time! This was an easy concept even for the youngest students who don’t fully understand key signatures, because they just had to go by the number of sharps and then count the key names by fifths to know the correct order.


After the opening game, we began the performances. Each student shared a bit of information about the country upon which their piece was based. Here, Addi is dressed the part as well!


In addition to sharing about their country, each student also placed a magnet on our map of the world in their country so that we could get a picture of where we were “traveling” for the performance.

After the performances, we concluded the evening with a loud, fun key signature game. I divided the students into two teams, using their scores from earlier as a guide to determine who to place on each team. Then, on the team, I had them line up from the slowest time to the fastest time. You can’t see it in this picture, but there is a piano bench between the two teams. On the bench, I placed a little service bell. One member of each team would stand at the bench and face-off. I held up a key signature flashcard and whoever dinged the bell first got a chance to name the key. If correct, they earned one point. If incorrect, the other team was given a chance to confer and then submit an answer. The team that reached twenty points first won!

Everyone really got into the key signature games, and I’m confident that they know their key signatures much better now than they did one week ago. Still room for lots of reinforcement, though. (We didn’t even get to the flat key signatures!) Hope this gives you some fun ideas that you can use with your students!

Key Signature Game with Mr. Whacker!

As I mentioned Friday, I’m doing a “Simon Says” game this week to reinforce our key signature theme of the month. I wasn’t quite sure how to adapt the idea to a private lesson, but after a bit of brainstorming, this is what I came up with.

I have the student spread out two sets of flashcards on the fallboard – one containing each of the key signatures on the staff, the other listing the name of each Major/minor key (I made a set for the sharp keys and a set for the flat keys, and we just use one set at a time). The student gets the whacker and I call out, “Simon Says…” and then either give the name of a key or say a specific number of sharps/flats. If I say, “Simon Says…key of D Major,” the student has to whack the corresponding key signature on the staff. If I say, “Simon Says…2 sharps,” the student has to whack the card that says D Major/b minor.

So far this is working really well and is helping the students think through the process of figuring out which key is which and how many sharps/flats it has. Plus, I also let them refer to the other cards in front of them if they want to. And of course, almost any game that involves the whacker is a winner! :-)