Creative Ways to Practise Piano Scales

A thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is essential for all musicians, and yet practising them is often associated with boredom and drudgery. How do we motivate ourselves or our students to practise them, and do we need to keep practising them once we’ve learned them and been through the exam system? Once mastered, we might continue to practise our scales as part of the daily warm-up (many concert pianists do this, but many don’t) or use them use them as vehicles for learning other skills.
Why are scales and arpeggios important?
In addition to being the only technical components in many examinations, fluency with scales and arpeggios is important for several reasons: 

Basic musical literacy (developing familiarity with all keys)
Keyboard geography, and a tactile as well as aural and theoretical understanding of all keys
As the basis for developing other pianistic skills

How to make scale practice engaging
Mindless practising is not only boring but also very inefficient, but fortunately there are many imaginative ways to bring scale practice to life. By adding variety and creativity to your practising, you will get much better results as you enjoy the process. The following are some ideas:

Practise with a variety of different rhythms, using accents and groupings (click here for more information on a recent workshop on using rhythms and accents)
Organise scales and arpeggios into groups so that practice doesn’t feel overwhelming. By mixing it up you can avoid practising the same scales in the same order each day, and you’ll be able to cycle through them all over the course of several days. A random generator is a helpful way of testing yourself out (see resources below for a tool), and using the Circle of Fifths can also help you come up with different sequences.
Playing with a range of different dynamics, including crescendo-dimuendo effects helps to make scales and arpeggios more meaningful and engaging.
Explore different touches and articulations. It’s particularly effective when you ask one hand to do something different from the other!
Playing one hand twice as fast as the other is a very good test of coordination and concentration. Try a scale using a two-against-three cross rhythm if you want a challenge!
Try using the Russian scale form which contains elements of similar and contrary motion and is an excellent way to add value to scale practice (click here to view a video demonstration).

Tools and resources
Given the importance of scales and arpeggios, I have developed numerous resources and tools to help making practising them more interesting and productive, in addition to giving advice on solving the technical challenges they present. The following is a listing which you might find useful: 

There are many further resources on scales, arpeggios and related topics in the Online Academy’s scales & arpeggios section. Click here to view an index of available resources.

Bringing Scales & Arpeggios to Life

On Saturday 15th May @ 14:00 – 15:30 BST (GMT +1) Graham Fitch presented an online workshop exploring creative ways to bring practising scales and arpeggios to life. In this interactive workshop, Graham showed how to solve the technical problems and how to use them as vehicles for learning other skills. 

Included in the ticket price is access to the workshop recording, presentations and worksheets. Access to the following Online Academy resources are also included:

Click here for more information or to purchase access to the recording and resources!

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Improving Your Left Piano Playing Hand

Do you feel that your left hand is weaker than your right hand and is holding you back in your piano playing? We all have a dominant hand, and for most of us it is the right hand. However, research has shown that even in left handed players, the right hand still shows a higher level of motor control!
The left hand is often neglected in our practising for various reasons. Our ear can be so focussed on the right hand that we don’t always listen attentively to what is going on in the left. Even if we do try to listen, we cannot be sure we are able to hear whether our left hand is playing in a controlled way. Perhaps we are playing unevenly, or missing some notes – we can’t quite figure out what’s wrong, but know something is amiss. 
Focussing on the left hand
Practising the left hand by itself is of course an option, and something I recommend doing regularly anyway. However, this won’t show us what is actually going on when we add our right hand. I have another solution for addressing this problem which involves playing a passage with the left hand on the keyboard as normal but with the right hand mining its notes on the surface of the keys.
By miming the right hand in this way, we are effectively playing both hands together still, but since we won’t hear any of the sounds the right hand would be making, we are able to really hear what the left hand is actually getting up to (rather than what we think it is doing). The process can be very revealing!

Exercises and studies
A secure left hand technique is essential for pianistic development, and special exercises and studies can be very beneficial. We listen only to our left hand, which is now responsible all by itself for maintaining the pulse, and playing rhythmically and expressively with nuances. 
On my shelves I have an ancient copy of Herman Berens’ The Training of the Left Hand. I have never really given it much attention before, but decided to take a closer look after being commissioned to write an article on the left hand for Pianist Magazine.
The subject of whether pianists need to practise technical exercises at all is a contentious one, but doing specific exercises in particular ways for a good reason can be excellent groundwork for technical development alongside studies and repertoire. However, doing exercises without such a focus, or in ways that create tension not only waste time but can also be positively harmful. As with any exercise or indeed any practice activity, it’s how you do it that counts!
Video Series on the Online Academy
Because the left hand is so often a weak link for many pianists, I am in the process of creating a video series on the Online Academy on the the left hand. This will start with videos on a selection of the Berens exercises and studies and include ideas on using symmetrical inversion to build up left hand technique by calling on the strengths of the right hand for assistance.
The series will also feature some of Paul Wittgenstein’s exercises and some of his transcriptions for the left hand of well-known repertoire. Who would have thought Bach’s first prelude from the ’48 could be played by the left hand alone!?
Practising this is not only a terrific test of memory but if we can play the left-hand transcription sensitively, with expression and full rhythmical control, we can be sure we are developing our left hand technique in ways that are perhaps even better than dry, mechanical exercises.

Developing the Left Hand
Would you like to improve your left hand technique and make your left hand feel more secure in your playing? Join us on Friday 28th May @ 15:00 – 16:30 BST (GMT + 1) for an online workshop in which Graham Fitch demonstrates a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left hand skills. Click here for more information or to book your place.

A Better Way to Play Faster

One of the most common questions asked by readers of this blog is how to play faster. We’re probably all familiar with a scenario in which we’ve laid careful foundations with slow practice only to find that everything falls apart when increasing the tempo beyond a certain point.
Slow practice is excellent for the initial note-learning stages and can also help us as we build up speed. How can we get a piece up to the full speed while retaining the feeling of coordination and control that is possible at slower tempos?

Using a Metronome to Play Faster
A common way to build speed is the incremental metronome method. This works by taking a section of a piece and setting your metronome to a pulse that you can already comfortably manage (this might be very slow). When you can play the passage comfortably, increase the speed of the metronome by an increment of your choice (perhaps 5 bpm, or even less). When you can control your playing at this speed, make another incremental increase on your metronome.
This is a favoured method of many great pianists and clearly has its merits. However, it can also be somewhat time-consuming and tedious, running the risk of becoming mechanical and mindless after a while.

A Better Way to Build Speed
An alternative method, which I find far more efficient in going from a slow note learning tempo to the desired tempo is playing little bits fast, often called “chaining”. This method enables us to build the reflexes for fast playing, and because we limit the length of the chain in each iteration to what is manageable or just outside our grasp, we are able to finesse the sound we are after at full performance speed.
Here’s how it works:

Without the metronome, play just a few notes at speed, then stop. Think of a sound bite from a full performance, with dynamics, good sound, shaping, etc.
Evaluate your result as precisely as possible – for example: “The LH was uneven”, or “The hands weren’t together”, or “It felt tight” using the Feedback Loop.
Mentally rehearse the snippet you played before you repeat it, imagining how it sounds and feels to play evenly, with the hands precisely together, freely, etc. See, hear and feel in your imagination. It is most important to go through this stage before diving into the keyboard again.
Repeat the previous 2 steps until you are happy.
Add another note, or group of notes and repeat the process, now with this longer chain.
Start a new chain from the note(s) you ended on, and work in the same way.
Now you have two short chains. Join them together until you have one longer one.
RESIST the temptation to go over things slowly and comfortably – we’re building new reflexes and this will be challenging!

In this clip from a recent online workshop, I show how to apply chaining techniques to the Allegro of the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata of Beethoven:

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Further Reading

For a more indepth I explore this subject in depth in Part One of my eBook series, Practising the Piano – The Practice Tools
The following blog posts contain more detailed information on the concepts covered in this article:

Getting Your Pieces up to Speed
If you’d like a hands-on demonstration of how to apply these and other practice methods for building speed then you may be interested in joining our upcoming workshop on Sunday 13th June @ 14:00 – 15:30 BST (GMT +1). In this interactive session, Graham Fitch will explore the following topics:

The technical considerations for fast playing
Avoiding tension
When slow practice no longer helps
Practice method that delivers results
How to maintain speed and accuracy in old repertoire

The workshop will feature examples and demonstrations followed by exercises that you can try yourself with a piece you’re working on. There will also be opportunities for questions and to get direct feedback from Graham if you wish! Click here for more information or to book your place.

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Jailbreaking Hanon

The three books that make up The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon have been a mainstay with piano students since they were first published in 1872. It is interesting to note that Hanon had up until then been active as an organist and through his own publishing house had published various works, mostly method books. He was not known as a pianist. Because of its success in the Exposition Universelle (Paris’ third World’s Fair) in 1878, as well as through his acute business acumen, Hanon managed to get The Virtuoso Pianist accepted into various conservatories, and piano professors and their students quickly adopted it. 

Modern piano teaching has moved away from the concept of so-called “finger strengthening” using mechanical exercises such as these, and certainly from lifting each finger high and in isolation from the others. However, many concert pianists and top teachers still use Hanon’s exercises, presumably in ways that differ from Hanon’s original instructions for how to play them.
Jailbreaking Hanon’s Exercises
Since the exercises are nothing more than patterns of five-finger positions that move up and down across the keyboard, they are innocuous in themselves. It depends entirely on how we do them, and what we are doing them for. I use a selection of the exercises as blank canvasses to teach specific choreography. I call this “jailbreaking”.
Jailbreaking is the process used to modify the operating system running on an iPhone to allow the user greater control over their device, including the ability to remove restrictions imposed by the manufacturer and install apps and other content through other unofficial online stores. By using Hanon “off-label”, we can ignore his outdated instructions and instead use his easy-to-remember note patterns as vehicles for developing pianistic skills that have nothing to do with finger strengthening, rather with coordination and alignment.

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Using Exercise No. 1 for Different Purposes
To give an example of my jailbreaking approach, let’s look at the first exercise which is a simple five-finger pattern in which I use for a variety of purposes:

As a thumb exercise, try this hands separately using just the thumb and 2nd finger, then thumb and 3rd finger. You can follow this with thumb and 4th and 5th if you can do so comfortably. This gives you a useful exercise for developing some flexibility in the thumb (provided the elbow does not dip up and down).
If there is a tendency to lock in the wrist during passagework, the fingers will tend to take over and the playing soon feels tight and uncoordinated. Using Hanon No. 1 to choreograph the lateral wrist adjustments necessary to line up with forearm with the playing finger is often more expedient than aiming to experience the movements in a complex piece of music. The note pattern is easily memorised, and we can look down at the hand in order to focus fully on the movements involved.
In this excerpt from my Online Academy video series I demonstrate how this works:

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If you’d like to find out more about my approach to using Hanon’s exercises creatively and adapting them for various purposes then please click here to view my video series on the Online Academy. Several further blog posts on using Hanon are also available here.

Try It for Yourself!
If you’d like a live demonstration of how Hanon’s exercises can be used creatively and a chance to try this yourself, then don’t miss our online workshop on Saturday 17th July @ 14:00 BST (GMT +1). Using specially designed exercises and activities, Graham shows how the exercises can be adapted to experience and develop various wrist movements and touches, thumb flexibility and rotation. Click here for more information and to book your place!