piano, piano blog, piano instruction, piano scales

Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)

Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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The Anatomy of a Scale

If you want to pick your brain, ultra-analyzing a scale: finding symmetries, asymmetries, reciprocals, common tones with common fingers, upside down, inside-out relationships between the hands, and anything else that will solidify it, you might add an extra few senility-proof years to your life. Example: I can’t remember my neighbor’s first name, or my best friend in high school, but I can dissect all scales in the Circle of Fifths (Major and minor), taking them apart piece-by-piece and putting them back together in the holistic sense, guaranteeing their well-being in brisk tempo.

As an example, I offer my latest dissection of Ab Major, bestowed by a generous donor from the piano student population, whose interest in advancing  micro-exams of scales produced a mega-analysis beyond his wildest dreams. And in this essential post-mortem, after the scale was D.O.A. (dead on arrival), I posted a homework assignment for the catastrophe-prone pupil: Chart the 4-octave spree based on all the nit-picky relationships fleshed out in the attached video.

Once completed, he will diligently practice the scale, enlisting faith and determination, combining all the brain/brawn power necessary to resurrect it.

Ab Major:
Basic fingering, two octaves: (4 flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)

Ab Scale two octaves

Bonus Scale exam: F# minor (Natural form)

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From Legato to Staccato: staying connected at the piano (Video)

The universal chant among my adult students is, “I can’t play those darn staccato scales and arpeggios. They’re impossible!”

And the reason for all the moans and groans is, they feel DISCONNECTED, and not safely secure in the keys. It’s in part PSYCHOLOGICAL.

If students can pull off a nice, swinging, well-shaped LEGATO, all they have to do is SNIP the LEGATO into a clean and healthy staccato. (This presumes that the arms are relaxed, and the wrists are supple. That doesn’t change in “crisp” staccato mode)

Instead of presenting a long-winded sermon on how to play detached notes with a desired ease and bounce, I prepared a video.

(Be reminded, above all, that a playful romp over the keyboard should be more of a pleasure than a pain.)

Lesson in Progress: Albertina, 13, practices Kabalevsky’s sprightly “Clowns” piece with attention to a bouncy left hand staccato pattern and a combined legato to staccato melodic outline.

Related: Scales, staccato and the “trampoline effect”

Scales have always gotten a bum rap. Most piano students, especially beginners, loathe them. They consider the exercises to be meaningless and time wasting. They’d rather cut to the chase and play their assigned pieces.

If for a moment, pupils decided to consider scales in the same way a runner regards muscle stretches before a race, they might view their sequence of musical steps as a vital preliminary.

Scales aren’t just isolated, irrelevant exercises. They permeate the piano literature in all styles and forms: classical, jazz, popular, musical theater, etc. To be a versatile player in any musical genre, knowledge of scales in all keys is very important.

I think of my daily dose of scale practice as a romp on the playground.

On a kinesthetic level, scales are a cathartic release of physical energy, framed by a steady beat.

In the cognitive realm, the player must know the key signature, or how many sharps or flats, (or none) are contained in the sequence.

In the affective universe, a student should be able to communicate a lighthearted mood in the Major tonality, and more depth of emotion in the Minor. These, of course, are musical cliches framed by our Western culture, so while they may be taken with a grain of salt, most of us have been so often exposed to jingles from childhood with Major/minor emotionally tagged associations that we can’t easily rid ourselves of them.

Playing scales more brilliantly in a bigger dynamic, Forte, F, also communicates a different affect, than combing the keyboard in the pianissimo range, pp.

When I teach scales, not only do I ask a student to block out groups of notes (“Chunking”) between the thumbs (separate hands at first) for a kinesthetic and cognitive understanding, but I insist that they play musically and expressively from the outset.

In the last three Major Sharp Keys of B, F# and C# there’s a symmetry between the hands that gives students a particular head start in the learning process. A sequence of double and triple black notes occur with thumbs played in between as the fingering is mirrored between the hands.

Chopin started his students on these three scales before all others because of their regular patterns, and now well into this day and age, piano teachers are reconsidering their over focus on the C Major scale as the beginning and end of the keyboard universe. This is a good turn of events considering that too many piano students have been left behind in the key of C for too long which has led to a crippling fixation. I, for one, fibbed to my teacher, Mrs. Schwed when she asked me what scale I was supposed to have prepared for the week’s assignment. As a result, I remained in the key of C for three years!

Playing scales legato, in a smooth and connected way, is always the first, basic goal to be met. The “singing tone” legato, especially, is fundamental to beautiful musical expression.

In my approach to learning scales, I emphasize weight transfer from note to note, using gravity to its best advantage. That means the wrists should be supple, elbows, arms and shoulders relaxed, and the breath should be deep and free flowing. Pushing into the keys, squeezing or any attempt to apply forced pressure to the notes is discouraged. Weight balance and the feel of a centered axis are invaluable.

I recommend deeply drawn out quarter notes played for two octaves, separate hands at first, then hands together. These should be played at a Forte level, (Big tone) but not in an ear piercing way. Eventually, through a rhythmic doubling or augmentation, these scales will dance their way through to lighter sixteenths but the build up must be gradual from a bigger dynamic to a pitter-patter at the end.

Here’s the routine with a reminder to play the scales continuously in each rhythm:

Two octaves of quarter notes (Molto cantabile, with a singing tone in the Forte range) Count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and….

Two octaves of eighths ( Mezzo Forte, medium loud) Think of lilting pairs of notes. The first of the two, leaned on.

Three octaves of triplet eighths: The fundamental quarter note beat is divided into three, with a ripple and rolling effect, to fill a broader space. (Mezzo Forte)

Four octaves of sixteenth notes, played lightly in a medium soft dynamic (Mezzo forte)

Four octaves of sixteenth notes, played staccato in mezzo forte.

Four octaves of sixteenths, detached, light and crisp, in the piano range (p=soft) Think ping pong balls and rebound effect. Remember that staccato is a snip away from legato. The center of gravity remains the same. Stay emotionally and physically connected.

For the more advanced student, thirty-second notes can be added in legato followed by a pair of staccatos, first Mezzo Forte then piano.

In summary, if the legato scale sequences are well executed, then the staccato notes should lightly stream out with little effort. I think half weight at least and trampoline or rebound. Ping pong balls, again, are probably the best mental image.

Footnote: A forearm staccato might be used to play more brilliant crisp passages, while a finger staccato would be enlisted for lighter musical phrases in very fast tempo.

If the body and mind are relaxed, attuned to the here and now, then just being at the piano becomes the only reality.

Playing scales in this frame of mind should be pure ecstasy.

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Rina, 5, performs at our Spring Recital (after 8 months of piano lessons) Video

Rina is moving right along. She can spin a legato phrase with finesse after having practiced her detached-note playing for months. Now she’s working on using featherlight thumbs to craft smoother lines.

Notice her supple wrist approach to the piano:


Here’s a sample of Rina’s offerings at the May 5th evening recital held at Valley Music Center in Fresno.

More playing:



Teaching piano to young children

Tales of a Musical Journey by Irina Gorin

Class starting on May 19th


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Piano Technique: An adult student works on rolling forward wrist motions in Two, Three, and Six-note groupings (Video)

This particular student has come a long way in the six years we’ve worked together, and as always been the case, I’ve probably learned more from her than in reverse.

From my second piano, I can gaze over at my pupil sitting at the grand and grasp a whole body in-motion perspective of her playing. From this vantage point, I can observe any tension in the arms, wrists, etc. that may be impeding fluid phrasing.

Universally, students tighten wrists and don’t allow them to naturally move forward in a flexible motion. And unfortunately, finger strength can’t compensate for stiff wrists, or tightness anywhere along the whole arm spectrum.

Today I chose to spend a good chunk of lesson time ROLLING THE WRIST forward over two-note groupings, then three and finally six. (one can consider 8th notes for this exercise, and when rolled in three, we are thinking triplets. The sixes would double the triplet 8ths, though a teacher can pull back or adjust the tempo as indicated.)

The Video

We worked on freeing the wrist using the B minor Arpeggio as our springboard.

We also interspersed this practice with single-note, roll-forward wrist motion.

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Down to the wire: An 11-year old piano student prepares for a competitive Baroque event (VIDEO) with a tender flashback

Claudia has made significant gains this year. She’s shaping her phrases more, and becoming ear-attentive and physically responsive to the music she plays.

Today, she made additional headway with J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C minor, BWV 847.

Coming into her lesson with two introductory readings, she was bobbing her head up and down, reinforcing beats which impeded the bigger flow of phrases above and beyond these metronomic impulses. (The playing was initially VERTICAL and without direction)

In the video attached, Claudia had a bigger conception of the work, playing it more HORIZONTALLY, with an ear toward melodic contouring AND harmonic rhythm. To play this composition requires at least a two-tier understanding of their interaction, not to mention an absorption of form or structure.

The interluding ad lib sections, are in marked contrast to what unfolds in between, requiring sensitive tempo shifts.

In this arena, Claudia is developing her sense of a Baroque rubato without going overboard.


It’s always valuable for a teacher to sing various sections of a composition while the student plays, and to conduct, or use body language to help shape phrases along.

The big challenge on the day of the big event is for the student to have the presence of mind to communicate all that she has learned along the way.

Videotaping allows examination of what needs improvement, while simulating performance conditions as best as possible.

Flashback: Claudia, age 6, playing at her very first recital in my home.


Claudia’s musical time-line


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Piano Technique: Practicing a difficult section in Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, Op. 13, movement 1 (Video)

Some piano teachers prefer to improve a student’s technique by selecting difficult passages from the mainstream piano literature rather than assign a load of scales, arpeggios and chords that journey around the Circle of Fifths.

I still believe the best foundation upon which to build a solid understanding of the piano repertoire is by studying scales, arpeggios, in legato, staccato, with all possible combinations: in 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, rendered in parallel and contrary motion.

In addition, once a student has a well rounded exposure to theory, harmony, and understands the physical demands of playing with a focus on relaxation, using a full arm, supple wrist follow-through motion, then he is best equipped to tackle some of the more challenging passages as they appear in Beethoven sonatas–even those, like the Pathetique, from his first period of composition.

In the video below, I selected a section of the composer’s Sonata, op. 13 in c minor, that requires lots of chord blocking and voice tracking. I demonstrated in steps how to best untangle a very tricky group of measures spanning bars 89-113. A parallel section in c minor, measures 253-277, would benefit from the same layered approach.