One of my favorite aspects of teaching is leading students to a discovery of knowledge. Renowned pedagogue Frances Clark reminded us, “Teaching is not telling.” As easy, and seemingly efficient, as it is to fall into the rut of telling students what I want them to know, the reality is that they will almost assuredly remember what they discover and experience for themselves far longer than they will retain the words that I speak. That is one of the primary reasons that I incorporate games into our piano lessons. Games are an opportunity to both evaluate a student’s knowledge and understanding of a particular concept and to lead them to new and exciting discoveries.
At Claire’s lesson, when she struggled to correctly identify the key signature flashcards while playing her favorite “Whack-It!” game (a selection from the book “5 for Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson“), I knew we needed to do something to help her better understand key signatures. I pulled out a set of key signature flashcards and our jar of scale blocks and had her start by lining up the notes of a C-Major scale under the key signature flashcard for C-Major. Next, we set down the flashcard with 1 sharp (G-Major) and I slightly moved the last four blocks of the C-Major scale down under that flashcard, then asked her to finish lining up scale blocks for the notes of the G-Major scale. I did the same thing with the flashcard and scale blocks for the D-Major scale and then her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I see the pattern!” She was able to effortlessly complete the [not so circular!] Circle of 5ths and see how every key related to the next and moved progressively. Like everything, this will require repetition, but it’s sure fun to see the proverbial light bulb going off in students’ minds, isn’t it?
As I mentioned last week, I love to incorporate a variety of games to reinforce and evaluate music theory concepts with my students. This week we tried a Speedy Scale game to help students develop visual-spatial skills (they weren’t allowed to look at the piano keyboard, but had to visualize it in their mind) and put their music scale theory knowledge into practice (they’ve all been memorizing scale patterns this year to earn Mental Miles as part of our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme)!
Daniel caught on really quickly, so I talked him into doing a step-by-step video of how to play this game during a lesson:
A set of plain blocks with each one containing only one note name
A block with Major and Minor written on alternating sides
A block with a sharp, flat, and natural sign drawn on alternating sides
This is a quick, fun activity that is easily adaptable to students of all ages and levels. Since Alyssa just started lessons last fall she is just finishing up learning all of her Major pentascales. So in her case, I just had her select a block with a note name and then roll the sharp, flat, natural sign block, then arrange the scale blocks according to the pattern for the Major pentascale.
After students had drawn a note name block from my hand and rolled the other two blocks, I walked them through this process for figuring out the arrangement of the scale blocks:
Find the two scale blocks with the given key name (Stephanie’s was e-flat minor, so she found the two e-flats and placed them at the beginning and end).
Fill in the remaining note names in alphabetical order with no regard for which ones are sharps or flats.
Review the pattern for the given type of scale (we just used the Major and natural minor scales today) and write it out on the board if necessary.
Begin with the “tonic” and work your way through the whole and half steps, rotating the blocks as necessary to represent the scale (a couple of times when students were tempted to switch out a block for something else – especially those pesky white key flats and sharps – it was essential that they remember they could only use the block that was next alphabetically!).
Each of the students thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and it was neat to see how much they improved just in the short 5-10 minutes we used at the beginning of the lesson!
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):
Understand whole steps and half steps.
Understand that every type of scale is constructed of a series of half and or whole steps in a particular order.
Know how to construct Major and minor pentascales and Major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales.
Understand relative Major and minor keys.
Know how to play the primary and secondary triads in every key.
Be able to identify what key a piece is in based on the key signature and context.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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:
Choose and write the clef.
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”).
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.
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!