Making Scales Stick – 7 Different Ways to Practice Scales

Do your students get bored during scale practice? Do YOU get bored during your students’ scale practice?

I know I’ve certainly been both the bored student and the bored teacher in that situation.

piano scales with postits

That’s why I’m always thinking up new ways to practice scales. I think challenging students to play in new ways can keep their minds active, and make their scale practice more efficient. Some of these ideas I come up with on the fly in lessons, and some are more planned out.

I love finding a new idea to spice up scales that I can add to my scale practice memory bank. So I thought today I would share some that you can add to your’s.

Here are 7 different ways to practice scales. I hope you get a chance to use at least one this week!

Vibrant Music Teaching members, you can access this resource inside the VMT library. Not a member yet? Find out more about becoming a member here.

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7 ways to practice scales

1. In Rhythms

This is the go-to way of changing up scale practice for many teachers. Here’s a few standard ones to get you started:

  • Swung eighths (To help your students remember the rhythm try saying “boo-ba-boo-ba”)
  • Swung eighths starting on the short note (Say “ba-boo-ba-boo” for this one)
  • one-two-THREE (emphasise the third note)
  • one-two-three-FOUR (emphasise the fourth note)

If you’re up for it – take it a step further and personalise the rhythms you’re using.

Ask your student for her favourite food (or sport, book, hobby, candy, artist, animal, etc), and then use that as the rhythm. So, if a student says her favourite food is “lasagne and chips” that’s your new scale practice rhythm. I’ve had a lot of giggles with my students as a result of these rhythms.

By the way, I don’t recommend making her figure out the actual note values in the phrase. That just takes away the fun. And we need any extra fun we can get for scale practice.

2. In Your Head

In this type of practice your student plays…nothing

practice in your mind

Well except in her imagination.

Have your student think through her scale, imagining playing each key. There are a few different ways to go about this…

  • Just leave your student a minute to think it through while looking at each key in turn (only for the most focussed kiddos).
  • Have her tell you each note name as she “plays” it in her mind.
  • Have her tell you each finger number as she uses it in her mind.
  • Turn on the metronome or a backing track and ask her to visualise it in that tempo – you can try this in different note values as well.
  • Ask her to start visualising the scale and at some point say “STOP!” and ask what note she was on.

Try out all of these different approaches to mental scale practice, certain ones will work better with different students.

Mental practice is very valuable, and can be a great way to switch it up. Check out this post on the Bulletproof Musician for some research on mental practice and it’s effectiveness.

(While you’re there bookmark Noa’s site, it’s one of my favourites.)

3. Russian Style

I’m not sure if there’s a better name for this, but that’s all I’ve ever heard it called anyway. If you’re not sure what I mean by Russian style scales check out this kid on YouTube:

This is obviously not for the faint of heart, and not for your beginning students. This style of scale playing does look pretty impressive though. Plus, it can make an intermediate student think about a scale in a new way after years of playing it.

The bonus of the Russian style of scales is that for some teens it can have serious cool factor.

4. With Hedgehogs

Ok, bear with me. We’re not talking about real hedgehogs.

I’m talking about these cute little Japanese erasers that fit perfectly on the piano keys.

Hedgehogs D major scale

Getting your student to lay out a scale without playing anything is a fantastic way to switch off her muscle memory for a second and make her really think. If your student can play every scale at warp speed but can’t tell you what notes are in it – she’s missing part of the value of scales.

Obviously it doesn’t have to be hedgehogs, you can use anything that would fit nicely on the keys. But if you are looking for these adorable little hedgehogs you can find them here.

Vibrant Music Teaching members, you can access this resource inside the VMT library. Not a member yet? Find out more about becoming a member here.

5. With Post-its

I use little post-it tabs to help my students map out the important keys in a particular scale. What we mark depends on the scale and what my student is struggling with at the time. It could be the black keys, the white keys (in F sharp major for example), the thumb-unders, the third fingers, etc.

I find this is especially useful for a student’s first contrary motion scales with several black keys. Here’s what it would look like for A major contrary motion:

A major post-it scale

Your student can then play her scale on top of these stickies and use them as little landmarks on the way. I often stick these tabs at the top of the student’s assignment sheet so she can use her “training wheels” at home for the first week with a new scale.

Once she can successfully do the scale with the tabs I take them away, and tell her to imagine the coloured tabs are still there. Before playing any scale you can now ask your student to imagine the stickies.

This gives her that extra level of focus to draw her attention to the right places.

6. On Paper

Your students shouldn’t just know how to play her scales, she needs to be able to write them too. Take out the staff paper and ask your student to write out her scale before she plays it.

If writing out scales on the staff is too difficult for the moment, trying having her fill in the finger numbers on a blank keyboard like this one or the ones included in my scale level packs.

7. One Fingered

You read that right. Ask your student to play her scale with just one finger. You can do this with one hand at a time, both hands, contrary motion, & arpeggios.

Start out with just finger 2 from each hand and then mix it up, asking for more and more obscure and odd combinations.

“Use finger 5 from your left hand and finger 3 from your right hand to play the B major scale.”

“Play B flat minor contrary motion using finger 2 in your right hand and finger 4 in your left hand.”

“Play F sharp major with regular fingering in the left hand and only finger 3 in the right hand.”

Does this make your head hurt a little? Mine too, but at least your student will have to think and can’t keep going on autopilot.

The more we have to think the better we remember. 

Vibrant Music Teaching members, you can access this resource inside the VMT library. Not a member yet? Find out more about becoming a member here.

Bonus number 8: Scale Games

One of my favourite ways to work on scales with my students is using music theory games. There are lots of scale games in the Vibrant Music Teaching library. 

Scale Engineer music theory game from the Vibrant Music Teaching library

Each game in the library reinforces a specific music theory concept so that your students can make faster progress in their studies. Sign up today and get instant access to all the games, videos and courses.

What’s your favourite way to practice scales?

Is there anything unusual that you’ve found helps your students to learn their scales? What do you find is your biggest struggle when teaching scales?

P.s. If you’re looking for some more ideas for scale practice you might like this post I did on Tim Topham’s blog a while back ‘The age old question…how do we make piano scales fun and relevant?’.

4 thoughts on “Making Scales Stick – 7 Different Ways to Practice Scales”

  1. Some really great ideas here – thank you! I’ve tried rubbers on the keys before but find that they always fall off. I hadn’t considered post-its!

    Reply
  2. First of all: Love it!
    Second: The Russian scales I’ve always known as the formula patterns, and that’s what they’re called in the Royal Conservatory. However I’ve never seen it done with triads so that was something new 🙂
    Thanks

    Reply

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BAKING & BIKING

Talking to Parents about Practice


Join Nicola Cantan and Samantha Coates for this live masterclass on September 22nd.

In this masterclass, Nicola Cantan and Samantha Coates will discuss their favourite analogies for educating parents about music practice. You’ll bake a metaphorical practice pie with Nicola, ride a fictional practice bike with Samantha, and by the end you’ll feel much more confident discussing practice with parents in your studio.

This session will be oodles of fun as well as having lashings of practical ideas to use in your teaching. Come play with practice with us!

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