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Playing scales in contrary motion (Video)

Most everyone who has taken piano lessons has probably been instructed to practice scales in the usual direction, up and down, hands together.  This means the right and left hand move from a common starting point, separated by an octave (Eight notes) and progress in a parallel motion sequence by steps. Scales may be played for many octaves with a build up of velocity to develop and expand technique.

Playing scales in parallel motion is a bit more challenging than playing them from a common starting point and going in opposite directions. The exceptions, of course, are the scales that have  internal patterns of double black and triple black keys. As previously referenced on my video, Chunking a B Major scale, I demonstrated how fingerings are mirrored between the hands in the scales of B Major, F# Major and C# Major. The same applies to Db Major, Gb Major and Cb Major which are called ENHARMONIC scales because they sound the same, but are spelled differently.

When these scales are played in PARALLEL MOTION they are quite symmetrical. But if you play them in opposite directions fingering diverges, and their regularity vanishes.

In these pattern scales with double and triple black keys, the double black notes are played with fingers 2,3 of the Right as the Left Hand uses 3,2. Similarly the triple black notes are played with fingers 2,3,4 of the Right hand as the Left uses 4,3,2. To add in another lucky bonus of playing these scales, the thumbs of both hands meet in between the black note patterns.

If piano students were assigned these particular scales for their entire course of study, I’m certain they would not regard these step-wise exercises as a death sentence.

As I previously mentioned in another blog, the great composer, Chopin, chose black note pattern scales, as the ones to introduce first to piano students in the development of technique because of their easy assimilation.

The Advantage of Learning Contrary Motion Scales

It can be argued,  however, that a teacher can still maintain a modicum of respect, by not commencing scale study with these very symmetrical black note preponderant scales.

Instead, C Major can begin the cycle, but practiced in CONTRARY MOTION. (This routine may not apply to a wee beginner who is barely translating symbols and notes on the staff)

For an advanced beginner and on, the scales of C, G, D, A, and E would fall neatly into a category of those that are practiced in contrary motion with the same fingers in each hand playing at the same time. In and of itself, this is a welcomed symmetry, and one that makes coordination between the hands less of a challenge than playing the same scales referenced, C, G, D, A, and E in PARALLEL  MOTION.

Just like the black key group scales, contrary motion scales can also be chunked or clustered in pursuit of fluidity. Since the same fingers are playing at the same time, but going in opposite directions, the chunks or groups of notes between the thumbs feel very comfortable. The clusters or chunks form tunnels through which the thumbs pass simultaneously between the hands.

In the key of C, for example, with no sharps or flats, the student would play middle C with his thumbs and then chunk or clump the next two notes, in each hand, (2,3 in the Right Hand, and 2,3 in he Left Hand) with thumbs meeting before the next chunk, (2,3,4 in the Right Hand, and 2,3,4 in the Left Hand) Thumbs keep meeting or alternating between the 2,3, and 2,3,4 formed “tunnels” all through the scale sequence until it finishes back at middle C where thumbs converge.

The embedded video shows how to practice and develop contrary motion scales step by step.

For C Major: Place the thumbs of each hand at middle C, so they are sharing the space equally on the key.

What to do with your head while these contrary motion scales unfold?

Keep your head centered, and don’t shift it to the left or right, or bob it in any way. At least three octaves going out and back from middle C are well within your peripheral vision. Besides, it’s best to get the kinesthetic “feel” of the contrary motion scale without having your head or even eyes tracking every note in each hand.

The fact that the fingering is symmetrical should be the glue that holds the scale together from start to finish.

What to do next:

Practice in moderately slow tempo, in 4/4 time with a singing tone, legato touch (smooth and connected) unless otherwise indicated in the sequence described below.

Two Octaves at Forte level (Big tone) in quarter notes, counting each quarter:

1  and 2  and 3  and 4  (This is called a subdivided beat)

Two Octaves at a Mezzo Forte (Medium big tone) in eighth notes

Fill in the ands between the quarters to get perfectly proportioned eighth notes–Lilting pairs of eighth notes are desired, with a bit of leaning of the first note of the two.

Three Octaves of triplet eighth notes at MF level, with a floating or rolling motion. Be careful not to crowd the notes, but let them breathe and expand or broaden the space taken up by a quarter.

Three Octaves of sixteenth notes at a medium loud (MF) level

Think pitter patter.

Three Octaves of sixteenth notes, MF level still legato

Three Octaves of sixteenth notes, MF level in Staccato (Think ping pong balls) Use a forearm staccato.

Three Octaves of sixteenth notes, mp level in Staccato (Think ping pong balls) Use a finger staccato.

For a more advanced student, thirty-second notes legato may be added after the 16ths, followed by two staccato playings in 32nds, MF and mp.

Above all, enjoy the ride, and make it smooth!

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