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


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

Incredible New Scale Resource

Last weekend I received the e-newsletter from the fabulous Music Educator’s Marketplace and saw this brilliant new product: Nate’s Scale Plates. They were developed by a 9-year old piano student, and they are exactly what several of my students need! It baffles me that scale fingerings are as difficult as they are for some students, but even some of my most diligent students struggle to master them. These scale plates seem like the perfect solution. According to the newsletter, Music Educator’s Marketplace will be at the MTNA Conference next month, so I’m putting this at the top of my list of things to buy. I can hardly wait to give it a try!

If you don’t already receive the free e-newsletter from Music Educator’s Marketplace, you can sign up for it at the bottom of their home page. I highly recommend it! In addition to product information it also contains some great teaching tips and other helpful links.

Scale Labels

One of my favorite new tools to use with students are these fabulous keyboard labels that Susan Paradis, of the Piano Teacher Resources blog, created. I’ve started sticking one or more of these labels in the student’s assignment book and having them say the whole-step half-step pattern and place X’s on the corresponding keys. In light of some of our recent discussions on scale fingerings, it occurred to me that you could also use these to have the student write the finger number that plays each key instead of just marking the key with an X. It seems like that could be particularly effective; I’ll have to try it!

Here’s another fun activity that I did last week to reinforce scales. Hayley chose memorizing the Major sharp key signatures for her Cosmic Challenge last week and did a fabulous job, so I decided to reward her with this game:

1. Hayley randomly chose a flashcard with a Major sharp key signature from my hand.
2. When I said go, I started a timer and she could look at the card. Then she had to select and arrange the scale blocks to form the corresponding Major scale. (I encouraged her to line up all the notes diatonically first and then go back through and rotate them to indicate the appropriate sharps.)
3. After she was done, she would say “stop” and I would stop the timer. (I had told her that she would earn 10 points if she arranged the blocks correctly without any input from me. She asked if she could earn bonus points for doing it faster, so that’s when we added the timer element!)

Hayley loved playing this game and was quite pleased with all the points she racked up in the process! I really love all the great discussion and ideas that have been shared in regard to scales lately – it’s re-motivating me to emphasize scale theory and playing with all my students. I’d love to hear any other great ideas for helping students work on scale theory and/or playing!

Scale Fingerings

Continuing our discussion of scales, in last week’s Monday Mailbag post Lauren mentioned how difficult it was for her to grasp scale fingerings until a teacher actually wrote it out for her. She queried, “I’m curious to know how those of you who teach scales without a book ensure that the students practice the correct fingering during the week.”

Martina had also previously commented, “I teach the sharp keys without music, but write down/ let the student write down the flat keys because of the fingerings. There was too often ‘I couldn’t practice because I didn’t remember the fingering!’ What are your experiences?”

I think one of the key factors here is being aware of your students’ learning styles. I find that students who are predominantly kinesthetic learners pick up on the fingering very quickly just by being shown and then doing it a couple of times. Visual learners do best if fingerings are written out so that they can refer to the numbers as they play. And for aural learners, it’s hopeless. Okay, just kidding. But I do find that these students have the most difficult time mastering scale fingering. They are also much more prone to disregard the whole step/half step patterns and just go by ear – which drives me crazy! (Can you tell I’m not an aural learner?) Perhaps some who are predominantly aural learners could give the rest of us some tips on how to approach scale fingerings more effectively with this type of student…

Here’s how I usually introduce the scale fingerings. My students learn the pentascales first with the 1-2-3-4-5 fingering for all of them. When we are first transitioning into octave scales, I introduce it something like this:

Teacher: “Instead of just doing 5-note scales like we have been, now you are going to get to learn how to do full octave scales [ooh and ah 🙂 ]. So, for example you’ll be playing from this C to the next higher C. How many notes will that include?”

Student: “8”

Teacher: “Exactly! Now, the only problem is that you only have 5 fingers on each hand, so you’re going to need some extra fingers, aren’t you? Let’s test your math skills for a minute…if you have 5 fingers, but you have 8 notes, how many extra fingers will you need in order to play them all.”

Student: “3”

Teacher: “Ah, I knew you were a math whiz. Haha. Okay, so here’s how this is going to work – in the right hand you’ll play just the first 3 fingers and then ever-so-smoothly you’ll slip your thumb underneath and finish out the rest of the notes of the scale and no one will ever know that you didn’t have 8 fingers playing all along! [demonstrate and have student imitate] Great! Then to get back down, we just play right back down those 5 fingers and then slip the third finger over your thumb to get back to where you started. [demonstrate and have student imitate] Amazing! And of course you want to play it so smoothly that if my eyes are closed and I’m just listening, I can’t even tell where you’re crossing fingers. [have student play ascending and descending once more to cement the concept]

For the left hand, I tell them that it’s the exact same idea except reversed. I demonstrate and have them imitate and they usually get it right away. Ideally, then, they’ve processed the information to an extent that they can continue to practice correctly on their own at home.

Tomorrow, I’ll share a couple new things that I’m using to help students with various aspects of learning scales…As always, feel free to jump in with additional ideas of how to introduce scales or reinforce scale fingerings!

Monday Mailbag – More About Scales

There was such an interesting and helpful discussion about scales last week in response to the Monday Mailbag post and the Prescription for Scale Sickness that I thought it would be good to share a couple of the questions that were raised and some additional thoughts on them.

LaDona wrote, “My thinking is, if students have never actually seen the patterns written out, how can they be expected to visually recognize them?” And then Mindy added, “This is what I was thinking also. So, Natalie, can you address this part of how you transfer the scale information to the page for students?”

Honestly, I’d never really thought about that being a disconnect before! I thought it was an excellent point, though, so I thought I would do some investigative work in my teaching last week. With one of my little guys who was getting ready to learn the simple Let’s Go Team at the end of the Piano Adventures Primer Level Lesson Book, I asked him to look at what notes were used in the song, then look at which keys that would be on the piano. Then I asked him if he could tell what that pattern was – if it reminded him of anything that he had played before. He spent a moment scrutinizing the page and the keys and then exclaimed, “It’s a C-scale!”

I was glad to know that he was actually able to recognize the pattern as such, but I would like for this to be an instant and self-directed observation rather than me having to guide him (or other students) to that realization. I think the way that I’ll approach that is by specifically including this question in the initial analysis time that I spend with my students at the lesson when they are being assigned a new piece: “What specific scale or chord patterns do you see in this piece that you can point out to me?” This will go right up there with identifying key signature, time signature, dynamic markings, etc. Hopefully that will help train them to quickly see those sorts of patterns in their music.

This has gotten a bit long, so I’ll address the scale fingering issues tomorrow…In the meantime, does anyone else want to weigh in on how you help your students recognize scale patterns in music if you are teaching scales by rote, rather than using a scale book?

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!