Monthly Archives: March 2014

Scale Challenge Level 1

I would like to introduce the first level of my Scale Challenge.

All of my pre-Grade 1 students are working on one of the Scale Challenge Levels.

Most of my beginner students start with the Piano Adventures Primer. Chapters one and two are dedicated to off-stave playing, using the black keys of the piano. However in Chapter 3 the musical alphabet is introduced. There are a couple of pieces to introduce all of the letters of the musical alphabet and then we’re onto C major position.

The first piece to use C major is C-D-E-F-G March. To prepare for this I teach the student the Right Hand C major pentascale.

What techniques are we trying to develop with this scale?

1) Round hand shape. All of a sudden, this demand for a round hand shape is more clear! After all, without it we’d be struggling to reach the keys with our thumb!

2) Steady sense of pulse. We need to slow the tempo right down to encourage a nice steady beat within the scale. We may need to revisit the rhymes and songs we learnt earlier in the curriculum to understand the sense of pulse.

3) Stop those floating fingers! Whilst we don’t want our students fingers stuck to the keys, we also don’t want them floating around in the air while they wait for their turn to play! Some students will approach this challenge visually. They can see their fingers are floating! Others may respond aurally. We can show them that the sound of the scale is more even when the fingers are closer to they keys, we don’t get that sudden bump as they come flying down!

4) Smooth legato? Well we haven’t yet covered legato (smooth) playing yet, so most students use a detached articulation. Having said that, I don’t discourage a smooth sound if the student is naturally tending that way.

What theory are we learning with this scale?

1) Home note.  At this point I introduce the concept of the Home Note. Otherwise known as the tonic or key note. In C major this is a C but we can’t assume our students will understand that. Gentle and regular reminders that the lowest note of our scale is our home note is needed. Don’t allow them to assume it’s the thumb or the starting note, as this will cause problems when changing key or changing to the left hand.

2) Key of a piece. From now on, the key of the pieces in Piano Adventures can be determined, even though there are no key signatures yet. More often than not they will be in C major. I always ask the students what the home note of their piece is. In a scale it’s the lowest note, but in a piece this might not be the case so instead we look at the end of the piece. The piece finishes on the home note. Therefore the key of the piece is the scale with that home note. OK, so that isn’t always the case, but at the moment it is. Don’t just ask your student what the key is, they will habitually say C. Instead ask them how they know what the key is. At this stage I don’t worry too much about major or minor.

Close behind is the Left Hand C Major Scale

Now we are pleased that we didn’t associate the home note with the thumb because of course the left hand uses finger 5! I find some students have trouble with their left hand scale if I introduce it too casually. Instead, we make sure we have the right hand very secure, understanding that the pitches we need for the scale are always C D E F and G. Then I ask the student to place their left hand over their right hand and then whip away their right hand. This leaves the left hand in exactly the right position for the C scale. One more potential obstacle, make sure they start the scale ascending from the home note and don’t start a descent from G! Once that is established we can jump the scales around the keyboard to different C major positions.

Introducing G Major

Timing the introduction of the G major scale is dependent on the student. If you’re not careful, and even if you are, a student can misunderstand and think that they can play a G scale by keeping their hand in C position and starting on the G. To reduce this problem we spend a lot of time bouncing our hands from C position to G position and back again, both with the right hand and the left hand. Some students get it straight away, others need regular reminding. If your student struggles with this then pre-empt it before you ask them to do the scale. Don’t try and test them to see if they remember. Do the bouncing first, as a warm up, before asking them to play. Each time you try and test to see if they can do it on their own, your risking them failing, and you’re also watching them play it incorrectly. This incorrect playing is subconsciously being learnt!! Better to prepare them and see them achieve! It will be far more beneficial in the long run.

So How Does the Scale Challenge Work?

Level 1 of the scale challenge requires the student to play C major and G major pentascales, hands separately. As the teacher, you are in control of which scale they learn and when. At this point you will place a tick in the “Learnt” column next to the relevant scale. When the student is at home, if they believe they have cracked that scale and are ready to be tested then they put a tick in the “Ready” column. Then in the lesson they must play it correctly, first time, with a good hand shape and steady beat in order to receive a sticker in the “Tested” column.

This method puts them in charge of their assessment. They are keen to practise because they’re itching to get to Level 2! However, you are not asking them each week “Have you learnt it yet?!”

Here is my Level 1 sheet. I don’t usually hand it out until I’m almost ready to teach G major. I want Level 1 to feel achievable. It is on later levels where the student will feel more challenged.

Scale Challenge – Level 1

How much practice should I do?

Here’s a great video from Pamela Frank who talks about how much practice she thinks you should do.

Clearly she’s not talking about Primary School beginners – but the advice is still relevant. Be smart and efficient when practising! Don’t just play your best bits over and over!

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