Mastering Scales

The Thrill of the Challenge

Question: Hi Albert,

For the past year, I’ve been concentrating on trying to develop and memorize the “feel” of the major and minor scales in both hands together, in unison, contrary motion, 3rds, 6ths, and chord scales in all keys.

Although I try to work on a song piece here and there, I always end up working on a scale or two at each daily session, usually two hours, and I look forward to the challenge of the eventual accomplishment of mastering them. I am noticing that my fingers are gaining familiarity per scale as repetition insures accuracy.

I do enjoy the thrill of the challenge very much, and want to insure that my fingers will obey like second nature for all key signatures. Is my allocation of time to master all twenty-four scales, and their two-hand exercise forms of motion, etc., actually preventing me from advancing as a musical pianist?

I’m not finding much time left to practice on anything else.

– Richard (North Carolina, USA)

Albert’s reply: If you’re spending two hours a day on a scale or two and don’t have time to practice actual music, this is surely too much time allocated to piano scales. I’m definitely among the piano teachers who prefer not to prescribe piano exercises to students so as not to risk separating technique from music, but I also realize that this is a luxury probably reserved for those who have already gone through scores of exercises and developed a secure technique.

In the beginning to intermediate phases of piano study, when first developing your piano technique, you may well spend half your piano practice time working on exercises such as scales. I do believe scales to be the best exercises overall, and I recommend starting your practice sessions with them. I find them to be the best warm-up exercises, not only for the fingers but also for the mind.

Spending half your practice time on scales and other piano exercises – up to a maximum of about two hours a day (although Liszt did as much as six in his youth) – is normal for serious (i.e., professional-track) piano students.

However, I see no reason for amateurs and hobby pianists to spend more than an hour a day on exercises, particularly scales, and only up to half of available practice time. Mastering piano scales is just something every piano student needs to do, and there’s no way around it. The sooner you learn all your scales, the easier learning music will be.

The most important thing is that technique always be at the service of music. This means that exercises should be practiced musically virtually all the time. (There are occasionally some pianistic problems that yield to purely mechanical work, which then makes musical playing possible.)

Please take a careful look at how you’re practicing your scales. I wrote a lesson called Piano Scales: 10 Expert Tips that offers numerous strategies for mastering scales.

Finally, if you’re working independently, it’s a good idea to find the best teacher in your area to help you master piano scales, technique in general, and of course the music itself.

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