When I studied piano as a child, every lesson and practice session began with scales. I didn’t ask why– I just assumed it was a warm up, like running laps before gym class. As I now know, my piano teacher, and other piano teachers who teach scales, were accomplishing much more than just getting our fingers moving. Below are ten reasons to practice scales and arpeggios on the piano, along with three free printable piano scales to use with your students.
Why Practice Scales?
- Fingering Fluency. Practicing scales will help build comfort and smoothness in some of the most commonly used fingering patterns in music. Finger crossings can often cause hesitations, and scales are the perfect opportunity to focus on such transitions outside of a piece of music. Repeated practice of different scales helps solidify muscle memory of the best scale fingerings. When similar patterns arise in the pieces students are playing, it will be natural for them to follow the fingerings they know from scales.
- Finger Strength and Coordination. Part of building the fluency mentioned above is physically strengthening the fingers. Certain fingers get used more often then others within the pieces students play, but scales make sure all ten fingers are engaged. Many scale patterns also require both hands to work together in ways early piano literature doesn’t often require them to. Many early pieces involve long left hand notes while the right hand plays the melody. Scales, however, get the left hand moving along with the right. Dexterity and strength are just as important for the left hand!
- Theory Foundations. Scales are also a great way to acquaint students with the different key signatures and basic chords within those keys, as well as the whole and half step patterns that create different scale types. Some teachers recommend practicing scales and arpeggios in the same key as the piece a student is working on to solidify those connections. If a student has mastered the C# major scale, they’ll be much less intimidated by all those sharps when they that key signature in a piece.
- Smoothness and Evenness. Practicing scales provides a great opportunity to build a pleasant consistency in rhythm, dynamics, and articulation. Making sure scales and arpeggios are evenly paced can be a good way to develop an internal metronome, and aiming for consistency in dynamics or articulation can increase awareness and control of those aspects as well.
- Practice Testing Ground. While scales can be great for building consistency, they also provide a perfect testing ground for adding variety to one’s playing. Once a scale is familiar and easy to play, it can be used to practice different dynamics, articulation patterns, or rhythmic patterns. The same scale can be used to practice a pianissimo staccato or a legato crescendo. If the scales are automatic, students can focus easily on the other aspects they are practicing.
- Keyboard Geography. In the first few years of piano lessons, much of the literature stays within a comfortable, familiar range of notes. Scales are a non-threatening way to expand that range and become comfortable across more of the keys. When students start moving around more within their piano pieces, they’ll have a better sense of where to reach for these higher and lower notes.
- Ear Training. Hearing the major and minor scales and arpeggios over and over again ingrains these patterns in students’ ears as well as their fingers. Knowing these sound patterns can aid students in tackling new scales and key signatures, and can even be helpful if students pick up a new instrument.Being able to accurately imagine the sound of an arpeggio will be hugely helpful for the beginning trumpet player trying to find the interval of a third.
- Inclusion in Pieces. Yes, full scales, snippets of scales, and arpeggios do show up in countless pieces, and these runs may look intimidating to the student who isn’t familar with their scales. When you see it happen, make sure to point it out to students so that they can see the connection.
- Practice Routine. While scales and arpeggios are far more than just a good warm up, they still do make a good one. Including scales as part of a practice session can give students the starting point for a practice routine. Some students may find it overwhelming to sit down at the bench without any idea where to start, so beginning with scales and arpeggios can provide some structure to practice sessions.
- Improvisation and Composition. A good foundation in scales and arpeggios will serve students well who go on to improvise or compose. Jazz pianists, for example, rely heavily on the blues scale when they are called on to improvise. Aspiring composers can find inspiration and structure within the familiar and patterns of the arpeggio and scale.
Students at almost every level of piano can benefit from studying scales. The three printable scale sheets below will give students a guide to getting started on three of the basic major scales: C, F, and G.
Get C Major Scale and Arpeggio Easy and Intermediate
Get F Major Scale and Arpeggio Easy and Intermediate
Get G Major Scale and Arpeggio Easy and Intermediate
Each of these simple scale sheets provides two scale/ arpeggio exercises: one at the beginning level, spanning one octave and finishing with one arpeggio, and one at the intermediate level, which covers two octaves and ends with more complex arpeggio pattern. Every ascending note includes finger numbers to guide students through the exercise and ingrain proper fingering techniques.
While it’s true that scales are easy to learn even without sheet music, seeing the scales and arpeggios on the page can help students get started. These scale sheets remind students of which notes are in the scale and give them rhythms to follow. Having a physical sheet might also help students remember to practice the scales, and make them more confident in their ability to do so. Seeing the scales in print will also help visual learners to remember the key signatures and fingerings and to recognize the patterns when they appear in their music.
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