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!

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