Practicing Music vs. Scales

Question: I am a beginning piano player and want to start on a path to being a good piano player. I have started practicing scales, but it bores me to death. I find myself going back to playing songs after only a minute of playing scales.

Is it possible to get better at playing the piano without laboring through scales? Can I work through songs with increasing difficulty in order to increase my performance?

– Scott (Marion, New York, USA)

Albert’s reply: The short answer is no, and the long answer is nooooooo!

The only way you will play scales fearlessly, beautifully and evenly in your music is by mastering them apart from your repertoire. If you wish to play one scale truly well in your music, you must play all of them beautifully independently of the music.

If you are to achieve your musical potential you must adopt the master’s mentality. Experts learn to love practicing scales because they know it leads to mastery. Some concert pianists no longer practice scales regularly because they no longer need to, but all professional classical pianists have paid their dues in the form of many, many hours of scale practice.

Personally, I find great benefit in starting nearly every day’s piano practice by practicing scales. It is said that Leopold Godowsky had the most perfect scales of any pianist, yet he claimed he never practiced them. (There can be no doubt that he clocked countless hours of scale mileage in his youth to acquire such a perfect mechanism.) I’m not one of the fortunate pianists who can go without practicing scales. If I miss a day or two, I definitely notice when I return to scale practice, sometimes even to the point of embarrassment.

I therefore learned to love warming up with scales. I love the way they make my hands feel once they’ve limbered up. They even warm up my mind, making it much more receptive to learning music. Scales are the most wonderful discipline – and like all discipline, they no longer require discipline once they’ve become a habit.

Remember that you need to be over-prepared… and that there is no such thing as over-preparation! Learn your scales step by step (going around the circle of fifths – I recommend starting with the bottom, but you can also start with C major at the 12 o’clock position) and you may soon come to enjoy them as well. Learning your scales well is perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your piano playing, as it will lay the foundation for your further progress.

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