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Scale Mastery for Students: How Teachers Can Help

Updated on December 12, 2015

Teach Scales in Every Lesson

If you want your student to regularly practice scales at home, you have to begin by regularly teaching scales at every single lesson. Students will pick up on the value of scales when they see you placing a high priority on scales. If you skip scales in favor of the “fun” or “important” stuff, your students will follow suit. If you are consistent in teaching scales at every lesson, your students will learn to appreciate how important it is for them to practice scales at home every single day.

One teacher offers piano students a dollar for every time they catch him starting a lesson with anything but a scale. Even those who have not yet caught on to the importance of scales are alert at the beginning of every lesson--and remind him when he forgets.

Don't expect that students will latch on to scales overnight. You will have to be persistent and consistent; as your students see that scales come with every lesson, every time, they will learn to appreciate it.

Encourage a Daily Habit

How often do you want your student to practice their instrument? Every day, of course! How do you get your students to practice every day? Lots of ways: encouragement, parental support, practice charts, and rewards/prizes, to name a few. You learn what works for each child and you do it, because you want each student to have what only regular practice can give.

In the same way, if you want your students to practice and value scales, do whatever it takes to help them establish the daily habit of scale practice. Encourage them in every lesson, and praise them for their progress. Give them daily charts on which they can record their daily scale practice. Offer them rewards at lessons if they can show they have practiced and reviewed their scales every day in between lessons. Offer competitions or challenges: a teacher we know will sometimes offer students a candy bar of their choice if they can come back the following week and play their assigned scale better than she does. Do anything that it takes to help your students develop the habit of practicing scales every single day.

Daily Scale Review

If scales were simply an exercise to be gotten through every day, it would not much matter whether or not students remembered scales after they had learned them. However, in order to gain lasting benefit from scale study, students must actively retain every scale they have learned; this means that some time must be spent every day reviewing.

Daily scale review takes some time, but not a prohibitive amount. For most students, effective scale review can take just 5-20 minutes per day, depending on how advanced the student is and how many review scales the teacher has assigned. Time is definitely a factor for every student, so don't assign them so many scales to review that they have time for nothing else; but make sure that they are reviewing at least a little bit every day.

If a student does not do their scale review during the week (or does not record their scale review on their chart), spend the lesson reviewing the scales with them. When a student has to spend lesson time reviewing scales instead of working on fun music that they are learning, they quickly realize how serious you are about the habit of daily review.

Key Signature Recognition

In addition to daily scale review, students benefit greatly from regularly being expected to recognize key signatures at sight. There are many ways you can do this. One of the simplest ways is to ask your student to identify the key signature of every piece of music you ever cover with them. Every time you pick up a piece of music--an etude, a solo piece, an orchestra piece--ask your student what key the piece is in. Then, have them identify which sharps or flats belong to that scale. If you consistently do this with every piece of music, their scale memory will improve rapidly.

Metronome

Have your students practice (and pass off) their scales to the beat of a metronome. Set the metronome at 60 bpm, and have students play their scales at two clicks per note. This habit has a number of benefits as students learn scales:

  • It forces students to slow down to the point where they can play every note perfectly the first time. There is no rushing and no hurrying, so there are no mistakes.
  • It helps younger students develop a sense of how a metronome works; it teaches them to properly anticipate the beat of a metronome, which makes it easier for them to derive benefit from this very important musical tool later on.
  • It gives the student plenty of time on each note to focus on bow distribution.
  • It allows the student plenty of time to produce a beautiful tone and a perfect intonation on each pitch.

From the very beginning of their scale studies, your students will know that their scales will be practiced and memorized slowly, and they rarely complain about the speed at which they are required to play.

Example: Metronome and Vocalization

Vocalization of Note Names

Before starting a scale, have your student say the name of the scale, the number of sharps or flats in the scale, and the names of the sharps or flats in the scale. Some teachers require students to say the name of each note as they play it, during every scale that they play. This is beneficial whether they are passing off a new scale or reviewing an old one. The reason for this is simple: in order to develop the valuable music theory foundation that comes with scale study, students cannot simply play notes; they must know the name of each note and how it fits into the entire scale. This simple habit of saying note names aloud while playing scales helps students in a variety of ways later on, including sight reading and theory comprehension.

Work Systematically

Start simple, and progress in difficulty. Students (especially young students) will make much faster and much more thorough progress with a well-thought out progression of scales. Whether working from your own progression or from a published system, the benefit of progressively growing in complexity is unmistakable.

Tracking and Rewards


Every student will make more consistent progress when they track their work and are aware of real progress toward a defined goal.

If students don't understand their overall goal and where they are along the journey, they will think of scales as an endless stream of meaningless exercises that their teacher gives them to keep them busy. If, however, they understand that their goal is to master 24 scales, and they can see how many they have mastered and how many they have left, their motivation to work on scales will increase tremendously.

In the tracking process, it is also very helpful to give students rewards. Give students an agreed-upon reward at the completion of each pre-determined group of scales. It's simple and takes little effort, but it is a way that they can recognize the completion of smaller goals along their progress toward the overall goal of mastering all major and minor scales.

Try it Out!

Try one of these suggestions with your students for a week or two. Hopefully, some of these ideas will make a difference in how you or your students perceive the value of scales. If you see improved progress in your students after trying some of these suggestions, please share a comment!

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