Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Practice Scales and Arpeggios

Learn the basics of practicing on the piano

In this video, Robert talks about practicing scales and arpeggios on the piano. He offers a step-by-step approach with practical and useful examples. Don't miss this video!

Released on January 21, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin here at with a very important show, how to practice scales and arpeggios. You've probably been told, if you study the piano, how important scales and arpeggios are. Well, why are they important? What's so important about practicing scales and arpeggios? After all, there's so much music to be practiced. Why should you spend time with something like scales and arpeggios? Well that's a great question. I'm going to answer that question first so you have a reason for even watching this show in the first place.

Scales and arpeggios are kind of like if you wanted to be a mathematician or do math. You'd want to first learn your addition, subtraction, multiplication, and addition tables, or else how could you possibly do math? It's kind of the same thing with music. Major or minor tonality is prevalent in virtually all forms of Western music, and you want to have scales and broken chords just a part of your technique and a part of your mind so you understand music intrinsically.

Plus, it gives an opportunity to work on just that type of technique, that is finger technique, without regards to rhythm, expression, phrasing, or any of the myriad things that a piece of music has. You can just focus on that. As well as being an excellent way to warm up for your daily practice so you don't injure yourself starting with something really hard. Scales, particularly slow scales, are a great warmup.

So, now scales. The first thing you want to do is get a book. There's a great resource for pianists called 60 Selected Studies by Hanon. H-A-N-O-N. You must get it if you don't have it already. It has all the scales and arpeggios with the fingering. Get the Complete, Hanon Complete. It's got everything you need in there. There's also exercises in there that are a good foundation to develop enough strength to be able to study scales in the first place. So, if you're a beginner, maybe you shouldn't start with scales. Start with some of the easier exercises that don't have any fingering crossings, and they're an easy way to develop strength in preparation for scales.

Well, scales should really be practiced slowly. It's very important to practice scales slowly. And when you practice scales, the first thing that's going to occur to you is having to learn the fingering. And of course we only have ten fingers, but the scales go up and down the whole keyboard.

First, what is a scale? Simply put, a scale is a series of whole steps and half steps, and in the case of harmonic minor, there's even a step and a half in there. So, the first and last note are the same, and generally you play through all of the octaves on the keyboard. Arpeggios are simply broken chords. These are intrinsic techniques that are found in music, and music is structured on them as well.

So, slow practice is so important. Why is slow practice so important? Well, just like a dancer or someone doing yoga exercises, that slow exercise builds strength and flexibility. It's the same thing with piano. You want to develop the flexibility of your fingers and the strength. Much like if you were to kick your leg, it would be pretty easy to kick it up high. But if you try to lift your leg up very slowly, it takes much more strength to do that. It's the same thing with piano. It takes more strength to play slowly. Plus it's very important to play with raised fingers so you delineate the notes that are down and you practice the release of notes so the note lengths are all consistent from note to note.

So, I'm going to show you how to practice scales. You should have a metronome. Put the metronome on 60 and play one note to the beat. Now you have finger crossings. In the right hand going up, you have thumb crossings and in the left hand, you have third and fourth finger crossings. Coming down is just the reverse. The right hand has the third and fourth finger crossings and the left hand has thumb crossings because of course the hands are mirror images of one another. So, you may have to practice hands separately just to learn the fingerings, and I'd suggest starting with a C major or G major scale and get that fingering learned. You really need to memorize. Basically there's just four fingerings going up and four fingerings going down you have to memorize. Those are the crossings that I spoke of just a moment ago.

Once you have the fingerings learned, then you can begin to practice your scale. Put the metronome on 60 and play slowly, and watch your hands that you avoid arm motion and do everything just with the powerful fingers. And just do a full four octaves, just like it says in Hanon. All the way up and all the way down. Comfortably. Make sure that you use the power of the fingers and do not use the arms because the arms can't go fast enough, so you just want to just use the fingers in the slow practice. You'll get tremendous benefit from the slow practice. You should play it at least four times through satisfactorily, where you're comfortable, the notes are clean, your hand position is good. Then go on to two notes to the beat with the metronome. Once again, make sure it's comfortable and clean. Go all the way up and down the keyboard four times. Then attempt four notes to the beat.

Now, here's where you may have some difficulty, so I suggest find a speed that you can do four notes to the beat, even if it's dramatically slower. Get comfortable with that. And then once you're comfortable, raise it a notch. And every time you get it successfully, raise it a notch until you are up to 60 at four notes to the beat. You could even put it at 60 at two notes to the beat and start going a notch or two at a time to work up to 120 at two notes to the beat, which is the same as 60 at four notes to the beat. So, these are ways to work on scales.

Now, the raised fingers goes for one note to the beat and two notes to the beat. When you go four notes to the beat, because it's faster, there isn't time to raise fingers. In fact, you want to lighten up your technique so that you can play with fluidity all the way up and all the way down the piano. And you should be able to play four notes to the beat many times, not just four times. Be able to be comfortable playing up and down the scale.

Now, there are other ways to work on scales as well. Once you master your scales, first of all you want to learn all your major and minor scales and arpeggios. That is kind of a prerequisite for anybody who's serious about classical piano. Even in jazz, it's helpful, in other forms of music. I would suggest learning all your major and minor scales and arpeggios. In fact, a lot of jazz players will learn diminished scales, blues scales. There's many other types of scales. You can learn your modes. There's no end to what you can do. Some of the things you can do is learn your scales in sixths, tenths, and thirds. You could also play your scales in contrary motion. There's a world to discover in scales.

What I suggest is, use them as a daily warm-up. Spend just ten minutes a day on scales. And before you know it, by the end of the year, if you do one a week, you'll have all your scales and your arpeggios in your back pocket. Then you can start increasing the speed, little by little. Eventually you'll want to get your scales at 144 at four notes to the beat, as follows. That's a good minimal tempo for a virtuoso technique, 144 at four notes to the beat. You should strive for that and hopefully get that even faster than that someday. Then when you come to a fast scale passage in a piece of music, it won't be difficult for you. You'll already be able to do it. Plus you'll find benefits in all your playing.

So, try working on scales and see how it helps your technique in piano playing, all right? Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on January 21, 2015 @8:30 pm PST
Consider practicing the harder scales, such as Db or F#, first. Then everything gets easier!
Robert Estrin on January 22, 2015 @11:35 am PST
You will find once you learn all your scales that D flat may be easier than C!
vanessa on January 21, 2015 @4:40 am PST
Any suggestion on fingerings to play jazz scales with both hands? Or any suggestion on what book will have it?
Robert - host, on January 21, 2015 @11:26 am PST
Jazz scales are based upon major and minor scales to a large extent. The exceptions are scales with different number of notes. I am not familiar with any particular resource for referencing fingering for jazz scales since there are so many permutations of jazz scales from blues, to modal and whole tone as well as combinations. If anyone out there has any suggestions, please share.
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on January 21, 2015 @8:37 pm PST
It's often best to explore fingerings on your own. Try to discover fingerings that work in several keys. For example, there are certain patterns such as 1-3-1-3... that work in several blues scales. In addition, one trick I discovered and that I apply in improvisation as well as in practicing is this: if the scale has a Bb or A# in the right hand, play it with the fourth finger. Mirror image: If the scale has an F# or Gb in the left hand, play it with the fourth finger. This helps big time in avoiding the problem of "running out of fingers" when playing a line.
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