Nov. 22, 2018

Scales And Fingerings

Musicians run into stepwise notes at every turn.
Every stepwise melody in tonal music is a segment of a scale.
Every voice in a fugue will contain notes which proceed in stepwise fashion.
These stepwise notes, these voices and melodies, need to be fingered in a way which allows the player to execute them with the hands in a smooth and coordinated manner.
Knowing the scales is a tremendous help with that.
Students have been led to believe, and have been told over and over again, by the most talented teachers and performers many of whom we admire greatly, that scale practice is important, but THIS (photo) is the usual scenario when interested learners face the prospect of scale practice; for them, it's about as exciting as watching concrete dry.
When we're trying to teach, explaining the importance of scale practice to parents and students can sometimes be tedious; the student wants to get started right away playing music, and learning scales, for some of them, becomes an annoying obstacle; it hasn't fully registered in their minds yet that they need to be armed with this learning to tackle the music they love, and the time and effort needed to learn the scales is actually time saved.
Most young pianists therefore don't like scales or scale practice and would much rather be playing something else; some even ask if they're really necessary, and those who seem to particularly relish watching their own hands running scales up and down the keyboard also seem to realize that they're in the minority.
"I don't see the point in continuing along these lines" can be a dreaded comment from piano students, and it's a flat admission that it hasn't registered with them yet why they need to follow this path; but a teacher's abbreviated reply, "Trust me, you need this," is just poor and inadequate; we live in The Information Age, and knowing WHY we need to learn something is just as important as the material itself; without seeing the connection, the relevance, of what the teacher is trying to impart, the objective, for the student, remains vague.
Fugues, for example, present significant complexity with fingering; the fact is, all we need are the right tools to come at them, and any anxiety associated with performing them will begin to recede into the background.
Scales are one of those tools [See blog, Exercises, Parts I, II], a very important one, and when we can play them well we're on the way to developing a secure technique; they teach just about everything we need to know about the playing of fast passagework and provide us with the opportunity to develop our hands and learn every key.
We know that being able to play all the scales is important for many reasons, among which are these:
1) they develop absolute hand coordination to where both hands can play together with precision;
2) as stated, they're a tremendous help with fingering; for piano playing and for performing organ music composed after 1800 the standard fingerings we learn with scales need to be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit that we repeat every octave as we move up and down the keyboard; whether or not we adopt early fingerings for pre-1800 organ music, we still need to know how to work at the piano and finger the remaining Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary repertoire in authentic style;
3) they help to develop finger strength, as every finger is utilized which forces every finger to work properly;
4) they help improve our sense of keyboard geography in that, in order to play them up to speed, large amounts of keyboard need to be covered quickly; this helps build keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing;
5) they help us learn all 24 keys -- 12 major and 12 minor -- which is no mean feat ... an extremely useful and important feature;
6) they also help us develop a strong sense of rhythm, articulation, and speed, which are all important to good playing and tone production at the piano.
7) they help us to become very "sure-fingered" on the keys, which helps us build the kind of confidence we need when performing before audiences, when the "heat is on."
The more we do them, the better chance we have of enjoying them and realizing just how important this type of practice is.
Once we learn them, it feels like we're in possession of a key to a door we've been trying to open for a long time.
And in many ways, we are.