Practicing Scales

Question: Thank you for putting up this site! It has been really helpful!! However, I get rather confused when it comes to the topic of scales, in certain places you say that it is essential to practice scales evenly and with a metronome, and in some other places you say that scales should be played musically. I don’t quite understand. The scales won’t be even if they are played musically with crescendo and accelerando, for example. Could you clarify? Thanks.

– Ju (Singapore)

Albert’s reply: First, scales played with crescendo and accelerando can most certainly be even! What’s most important is that the articulation and dynamics are even. Even dynamics means not necessarily that every note has exactly the same volume. Rather, it means that the volume of each note is in proportion to the surrounding notes. A crescendo or decrescendo should be played evenly. Even does not necessarily mean linear in this case – a crescendo can start gradually, with increasing crescendo as the musical line progresses. There are infinite possibilities.

In any case, perfectly clear and even scales are the foundation for any further scale work, and indeed for good piano technique in general. It is impossible to consider any technique even remotely adequate if one has not mastered scales. The first task in mastering scales is to learn them with perfect evenness in all categories: tempo, articulation and dynamics.

Thus, until you are able to play all major and minor scales absolutely flawlessly in all three respects, you should always practice scales with the metronome, as this is the only way to detect rhythmic unevenness with certainty. I advocate only cautious use of the metronome in most music due to the danger of playing mechanically, but for scale practice the metronome is indispensable.

In summary, always practice scales with a metronome until you have absolutely mastered them. I suggest a goal of 144 beats per minute with scales in sixteenth notes, four notes per beat, in parallel and contrary motion. At that point you can start experimenting with tempo variations. Note that variation in articulation and dynamics is always possible even when using the metronome! The ultimate goal is mastery of technique, and the goal of technique is mastery of musical expression. Playing with perfect evenness and clarity or varying tempo, dynamics and articulation in scales with the utmost control will give you a broad expressive palette in the music you play.

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