THE JOY OF SCALES | PART 3: FINGERS AND THUMBS

Well, I hope you have all been having fun working out the tetrachord patterns of scales with your pupils this week? In part 3 of our series we are focussing on the physical aspects of introducing scales, putting the theoretical aspects to one side.

piano teaching resources

It’s good to remind ourselves at this point that the physical and theoretical aspects do not need to be developed concurrently, in fact it is a lot easier if the playing of scales is introduced well in advance of the theoretical understanding.

In particular today I am looking at different ways people suggest introducing playing scales, the importance of having systems and strategies for fingering patterns and giving three top tips for getting the thumb under control!

WHERE TO START?
Which is the first, full octave scale that you introduce to your pupils? Do you fall into the C major camp or do you introduce B or E major first? There are certainly two different schools of thought as to which is the better approach. The advantages of introducing B or E major are to do with the shape of the hands and fingers on the keyboard – the longer fingers, 2 3 4, falling more naturally on the black keys.

It is known that B major was Chopin’s preferred way of teaching scales, however it is possible that younger beginners might struggle initially to even cover the black notes. Certainly C major, with all its unremarkable white notes, has no keyboard geography to be remembered and negotiated, however, neither does it have any discernible patterns for the eye to spot. Essentially, the decision about the first scale to introduce to a student is down to you and should be made only after all options have been considered.

ESTABLISHING FINGER PATTERNS
Whichever scale you choose to address first the initial work on scales has to focus on raising the student’s awareness of the fundamental fingering patterns of 3 and 4. For this you need to have a system and the more imaginative this is the more it will stick in your pupil’s brain. Ilga Pitkevica [1] introduces scales starting on C D E G A, all of which share a common fingering pattern. Initially these are played just on white notes and before students are even aware that they are learning scales. Instead, young students are told a story where their fingers go on a journey past cars (which uses finger pattern 123) and lorries (pattern 1234).

This story based approach helps young pianists to absorb, and remember, without realising it, the all important fingering pattern with its emphasis on chunking notes together rather than thinking of them as 7 discrete units. This idea of ‘chunking’ a scale pattern (as a young teacher I think I first found it in Dame Fanny Waterman’s Piano Lessons Book 2) certainly isn’t a new one but I wonder whether a lot of us introduce it too late in the learning process?

INTEGRATING THE THUMB
How do you teach your first, full octave scale? Do you ascend and descend with the RH and then do the same with LH or maybe the LH descends first? There are lots of choices to be made here! If the scale starting on finger 1 is taught first then the tricky thumb has to be dealt with immediately whereas starting on finger 5 avoids this; attention can be focussed on the crucial aspect of playing with an even tone.

Once this is established you can move on more confidently to integrating the thumb. Here is a short video where I share three top tips on how to do this.

THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT!

A STORY TO HELP PUPILS UNDERSTAND WHY GETTING THE RIGHT FINGERING IS IMPORTANT

 

Whilst pupils don’t need to know the ins and outs of how the brain works I do think it is important that they know why getting the right fingering for scales from the start really does matter.

I tell my pupils a little story that they seem to enjoy that helps them to understand this concept. I thought I would share it with you.

 

 

 

IMAGINE YOU LIVE on one side of a deep and dense forest and a friend, who you haven’t seen in a long, long time moves to a house on the other side of the forest. It’s her birthday and you buy her a very special present and set off across the forest to deliver it. 

There are no paths so you take your axe with you and slowly hack your way through the undergrowth. It is hot and hard work and takes hours and hours and lots of effort. You get there eventually but, horror of horrors, you realise that you left her present back at home. You turn around and head straight back the way you came. It still quite hard work but not quite as bad and it doesn’t take so long. Having collected the present and changed your clothes once more you pick up your axe and…

At this point I usually ask the pupil what the best route is for him/her to take. Should s/he chop down yet another new path with just as much effort as before or would it make sense to go the same route? What would the path be like after 10 visits? Would it still take hours and hours?

This is just how the brain works – every single action we perform fires off a sequence of neurons making a pathway through the brain. When we repeat the action again the same pattern of neurons will use the same pathway. Use it often enough and the pathway becomes a road and eventually a superhighway through a process called myelination (which in my head I think of like a plastic coating). The first time you perform an action (e.g. the fingering pattern for scales) it requires conscious thought and effort as the neurons establish a pathway but, through repetition and subsequent myelination, the fingering pattern becomes an instinctive response freeing up brain space for other, higher order stuff.

So I hope you have found this helpful and it has made you consider how you can introduce scales in imaginative and creative ways for pupils. If you have similar stories that you use do come and share them with us. Here are a couple of questions for you to ponder:

  • How do you raise a students awareness of fingering patterns?
    What creative ways do you have of introducing fingering patterns to your students?

 

[1] Ilga Pitkevica. Personal Communication. 2016

[2] Thomas Mark. What every pianist needs to know about their body, 2003. GIA Publications Inc.

This post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder & Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

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2 thoughts on “THE JOY OF SCALES | PART 3: FINGERS AND THUMBS

  1. Philippa Furlong

    Loving this whole scale series! Thank you.

    My routine spiel for teaching scale fingering at grade 2 level when two octaves hands together is required is as follows. (more technical than creative but works)
    (spoken aloud together as we both play – at my tempo!)
    3s together, something happens, 3s together, something’s happened, that old 4 1 4 combo, 3s together, something happens, 3s together, something’s happened. Follow similar routine descending.

    However I now have my eyes opening to new possibilities!

    P.S. this is my first time getting to grips with the service you provide. All a mystery til now. Been a member since abrsm conference in November.

    Reply
  2. pia

    Thank you for that Sally, I have used the ‘spidercrab’ I call it Spider, for years and the fun is that if you play it together with your pupil, you can let him or her ‘catch you when you both get to the middle!
    Playing it together also helps getting regular touch and tempo, without having to talk about it!
    I also do a ‘wasp’ 1313131 around the 3 black keys 1 on white, 3 on black), up and down, saying that the wasp always hangs around the jam pot.

    I also ask pupils to play the scale ‘dumb’, without sound, to really feel the arm movement and imagining the sound as you go up and down. I also tell them the (real) story, of my fellow student at college, teasing me, saying that ‘playing dumb’ should not be a problem for me!

    Reply

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