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!

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!

Monday Mailbag – Free Scale and Chord Progress Chart

I’m a bit confused on the metronome settings on your free scale and chord chart – a quarter and an eighth note side by side, same tempo? What’s the difference between (two) eighths at MM-60 and a quarter at MM-120? Also, regarding chords, do you mean each chord and its respective inversions within each key?

You’re right that the amount of notes played at these two tempi would be exactly the same. The distinction is in the rhythmic feel. When playing eighth notes at MM-60, the student would feel two notes per pulse; whereas when playing quarter notes at MM-120, they would feel only one note per pulse. Then the eighth notes at MM-120 would be played two per pulse. Part of the purpose in playing scales this way is that the student gain a better internal sense of pulse that they can apply to their playing.

As far as the chords, yes, eventually the student will be playing inversions of each primary triad and seventh chord within the key. We have a wonderful systematic state curriculum, though, that I use as a guide for when students should be learning and playing various scales and chords, so I adapt according to the student’s level and individual progress. Older students also play scales and arpeggios in triplets and sixteenth notes, so the columns have to be adjusted for this purpose, too!

Also, if you like the general idea of using a scale and chord progress chart, but want to develop your own custom version, be sure to check out this post: Free Scale Chart and Tips for Making Your Own Progress Charts!

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!

Piano Keyboard Labels – a Must-Have Resource!

It’s been a while since I first discovered these piano keyboard labels on Susan Paradis’ fabulous website, but they are a must-have resource in my studio!

I especially love using them with beginning students. They are such a simple, handy tool to have on hand. Just stick them on the student’s assignment sheet or a blank piece of paper and use them for all sorts of assignments! For starters, I just draw a little “x” on select keys and the student has to write the name of the key under each “x” on the keyboard. I’ve also used them for scales, chords, fingering patterns, etc. No doubt, there are plenty of other creative uses for these ingenious little labels, too!

Free Major and Minor Arpeggio Keyboard Fingering Diagrams

Sarah, over at the Piano Discoveries Blog, recently posted some fabulous Major and Minor Arpeggio Keyboard Fingering Diagrams! Ever since I started using the scale fingering diagrams with my students (which we use very extensively now!), I’ve been thinking about designing something similar for arpeggios. However, I am thrilled that Sarah has done just that, and I plan to utilize these diagrams with my students!

Another of Sarah’s resources that I just discovered are these wonderful FACE Flashcards for Treble and Bass Clef. I can guarantee that these will get lots of use in my studio!

A Game to Assess Musical Scale Skills!

You should see the way my students’ eyes light up the minute I pull out some dice and tell them that we’re going to start off the lesson with a game! In fact, this is what prompted me to compile and produce the 5 for Fun! book. Just setting aside 5 minutes a lesson to do something fun energizes the atmosphere – and can be highly educational, too!

In thinking through how to deal with the Technique Troubles I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I settled on using this game as a way to assess where my students are at with their knowledge of and ability to execute scales. It’s super simple, but proved to be very enlightening! All you need is three dice and either a white board and marker or pencil and paper.

The student started out by rolling all three dice. Then I explained what they had to do based on their roll.

Here’s a close-up of the dice: one is 12-sided with a number on each side – representing every key of the piano starting with C as number 1 and counting up every black and white key after that (this was purchased at a local teacher supply store); one is a 6-sided wood block with two each of the following three options – “Sing It!”, “Play It!”, and “Write It!” – indicating how they were to do the scale; one is a 6-sided wood block with Maj and min on alternating sides – defining what type of scale it should be.

If a student didn’t know how to complete any part of the activity according to the roll, we discussed what it meant and how to figure it out. For example, if a student rolled A-Maj-Write It!, but didn’t know what to do, I would walk them through the process:

  1. Choose and write the clef.
  2. For scale writing assignments, if you don’t immediately know the scale, begin by notating an “A” and then notate all eight notes of the scale (i.e. write a note on every line and space up to the next “A”).
  3. Use the Major scale pattern to visualize the keyboard and determine which notes should be altered with a flat or sharp. If you can’t remember the Major scale pattern, use the C-Major scale to refresh your memory.
  4. Write in the sharps or flats as needed, being careful to identify them correctly based on what you have already notated on the staff.

I adapted the activity as necessary and did it with students of all levels. For younger students, sometimes we stuck to the pentascale, or if they rolled “Sing It!” I played the scale and just had them sing/hum along with me; whereas older students had to figure it out for themselves before singing it. For the ones who went quickly, they got to take more turns; the ones who struggled only got one or two turns. This was so helpful for me in assessing each student’s current scale understanding and ability. My plan is to continue this for several weeks as an approach to teaching scale theory and helping them become more proficient. We’ll see how it goes!

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!

Melodic Minor Scale Fingering Diagram Added

For those who missed it, I updated last week’s Free Piano Scale Fingering Diagrams post to include the melodic minor scales. Originally I didn’t create melodic minor scale fingering diagrams because I figured there wouldn’t be much demand for them. So much for that theory! Based on the feedback and requests I’ve received, I went ahead and created these melodic minor scale fingering diagrams as well. The upper layer of numbers (black and white) is for the ascending scale, and the lower layer of numbers (gray) is for the descending scale. This seemed like the best way to reflect the fingering and key changes within the scale. Let me know if you have a better suggestion!

Minor Scales – Melodic

Helpful Scale Resources

I guess I’m on a scale kick this week! One of my students asked me if I knew of any good on-line resources for scales that included an audio recording of the scale. She’s an aural learner, so it’s really helpful for her to hear what she should be playing. I did a bit of sleuthing around and came across some pretty cool stuff.

For example, did you know there is an iPhone App called Scales & Modes? It’s beautifully designed and contains a ton more scales and modes than your average musician would ever need to know. My student was able to download this for only $1.99 and use it with her iTouch!

This Your Accompanist website has downloadable mp3 recordings of the Major and minor scales, plus a few others.

Here’s a printable set of scale fingerings (on the staff), grouped according to fingering patterns. A handy reference.

The Piano Tricks website contains several short, concise tutorials on different musical concepts that could be helpful for students to reference for reinforcement. Sometimes it just helps to hear the same thing several times from several different sources!

Anyone else have any great resources for understanding and learning scales? I’d love to know about them! You can never have too many, right?!

Free Piano Scale Fingering Diagrams

For some reason, some of my students really struggle with scale fingerings. I’ve been trying a variety of different tools to help them remember and master the fingerings. One of my students suggested placing diagrams in the back of the assignment books with fingerings for all the scales. I thought that was an excellent idea, so I created the diagrams below for that purpose. Next year, I’m planning to include a complete set in the back of every assignment book.

Feel free to download and print these free piano scale fingering diagrams for use with your students (let me know if you catch any mistakes or have any ideas for improvement!):

Major Scales

Minor Scales

UPDATE:

Originally I didn’t create melodic scale fingering diagrams because I figured there wouldn’t be much demand for them. So much for that theory! Based on the feedback and requests I’ve received, I went ahead and created these melodic minor scale fingering diagrams as well. The upper layer of numbers (black and white) is for the ascending scale, and the lower layer of numbers (gray) is for the descending scale. This seemed like the best way to reflect the fingering and key changes within the scale.

Minor Scales – Melodic