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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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Piano Technique: Playing scales without bumps or accents

Laura screem shot B minor scale

It’s common for piano students to divide their scales into well-boxed rhythmic compartments, emphasizing the fundamental beat that interrupts a smooth flowing legato (connecting from note to note). Sometimes players are unaware of their reinforced “beat” counting impulses and need occasional reminders of what’s communicated to the listener. (who happens to be the innocent bystander piano teacher) The most important “listener,” of course, is the player.

Unwanted accents or bumps usually occur when the thumbs, in particular fall down hard on the keyboard during shifts. In most cases, the thumb is not advanced early enough in its passage, or it’s not imagined as a “light” traveler through many octaves. I tend to think “feather” thumb when I play it, or prompt myself to feel the “up” instead of “down” when it arrives.

But the thumb isn’t the only nemesis in scale playing, especially where unwanted emphases disturb an octave by octave flow. Once the cycle of bumps is instigated by the first thumb poke in the opener, (1, 2, 3, 1) the ensuing octaves become infected by a military drum beat on every 5th note in the parade.

No doubt, in the old days, beat-whipping pedagogues insisted that students KEEP in STEP through myriads of octaves, but thankfully these churned out pedantic exercises with predictable accents, have flowed into an awareness of scales as curves and waves within a legato framing.

(This is not to discount the value of recurring accent practice when a completely different landscape is desired–for instance, where measures of a composition demand notational punctuations.)

But in this particular lesson sample, the student embodied the singing pulse after she had consciously eliminated unwanted scale-wide accents.

The other dimension of our exploration was making a smooth TURNAROUND in B minor right where finger 5 in the right hand at the peak, often makes an angular POKE instead of a “loopy” or rounded corner of the scale. Attentive listening, imagination, hearing it before playing it, fused with a physical awareness of the supple wrist to cushion the finger at the top, helped in smoothing out the scale from “roll in” beginning, to loop around and return to home note. The same applied to staccato playing where shape and contouring were equally desired. (Emphasizing a horizontal, breathed through rendering)

All these areas were explored in this short segment. (“Smoothing out B minor scales”)


A related mentoring by Face Time transmission

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Piano Technique: Stabilizing tempo, presence of mind, and breathing through scales and arpeggios

This has to be one of my favorite reciprocal teaching/learning videos because it fleshes out the importance of breathing through scales with mindful concentration. Framed by a singing pulse, the scale becomes a model for all playing.

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 9.25.12 AM

Here’s B minor in Contrary Motion (legato) with my annotations that reference the BREATH and mindfulness.

Important Prompts: Sing to shape; drag notes for traction instead of poke; BREATHE into the scale; be MINDFUL and CENTERED with focused CONCENTRATION–Play with a framing pulse; float “weeping willow” arms; “float” on air.


In this second video, an adult student works on stabilizing her pulse through a legato to staccato rendering of a C Major scale and arpeggio.

Erratic rhythm is a problem for many pupils, but when they review their recorded playing they often have epiphanies that otherwise evade them in real lesson time. This is why playbacks can be so valuable in the piano learning environment.

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Piano Technique: When an adult student is in the Zone!

It’s always valuable to snatch a lesson segment when a student gets it just right and has the equivalent of a runner’s high at the keyboard. It’s certainly instructive for both teacher and pupil to observe what conditions predisposed a pupil to a level of ONEness of body, mind and spirit.

Last night, Jocel displayed such fluidity supported by my framing rhythmic prompts that wrapped his F Major scales and arpeggios into a cohesive frame. Naturally, the goal in the long run, (no pun intended) will be to have him internalize a singing pulse, taking its consciousness into his practice module during the week.

(P.S. Pardon the HOT zone wired webcam mike, that was inadvertently un-silenced)


In truth, both teacher and pupil are on a common wavelength of experimenting, analyzing, and refining during piano lessons: each bounces off the other through a mutual journey of awakenings.

As Seymour Bernstein sagaciously says, if we are good teachers we give our students a lot of credit for being our mentors and naturally, the reverse is true.

When a student gets it, so do we!

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Piano Technique: Attaining speed and clarity

Last night, one of my adult students observed me doing a quick glide warm-up over a two-octave scale before we officially started our lesson. Uncannily, his inquiry about how I managed to attain fluency at peak tempo, turned out to be the focus of our first fifteen minutes together, and it got me thinking about how I could help the pupil navigate his A# minor Natural scale to brisk speed in specific, well thought out steps. (We fragmented the last two ascending octaves)

What evolved in baby steps, was a back and forth exchange that built on a primary foundation of blocking clusters of black notes; isolating thumb points with a relaxed forward follow through supple wrist motion; then alternating thumb placements with cluster black note groups–We continued with rhythmic rolls into small note groupings and then to larger ones, building to peak. Breathing was a big part of our undertaking: Inhaling a relaxed chestful of air, and then slowly expelling through the scale. Once the scale had a sparkling journey through two octaves, we worked on varying dynamics: crescendo, diminuendo, then playing all Forte followed by piano (soft).

Our lesson segment unfolded out as follows:

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Piano Technique: Wrist dipping and thumb twiddling

With creative juices flowing during a piano lesson by Skype, a teacher can toy with various mental images by webcam that assist fluid technique.

“Wrist dipping” through a five-finger position in rapid rhythm required focus on how to avoid the inevitable accent that occurs on framing thumb and pinky. “Soft” landings were therefore isolated and practiced to diminish their impact.

“Twiddling” thumbs beamed to a North Carolina student prepped her for a shift-by-shift journey through A minor. Watch out for obtrusive pokes and hard landings. Keep an agile, relaxed thumb as also applied to a D Major arpeggio practiced in this segment.

twiddling thumbs

Attentive listening fused with an awareness of “feel,” (or physical memory of how to create an imagined sound) plus mental imagery are great assets to advance technique and musicality.



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Piano Technique: Self-created Scale and Arpeggio Prep

Over months and years, I’ve devised various technique framed routines that happen to be bi-products of trial and error excursions over the keyboard. To the extent that I put myself under self-analysis following a stint of formal piano study, I was able to discard a lion’s share of the factory-generated, Conservatory-based litany that encapsulated certain fingers while others tapped away. (i.e. Schmitt exercise-based enslavement that had no relationship to the repertoire of pieces I was studying) In truth, the finger clamp down was a major obstacle to musical development and threatened physical injury.

Once emancipated from a “program” that herded piano majors into practice cubicles where they heard Schmitt reverberating through thin pre-fabricated walls, I set about to create a “natural” approach to piano playing that was built around the relaxed hand, wrist, and arm in synch with an unimpaired flow of breath.

In practicing scales and arpeggios, (in particular) rhythms like the dotted/8th–16th provided a wrist forward motion that had the whole arm behind it. The fingers, suspended at the end of the whole arm/wrist spectrum were not cut short at the terminus. They were fueled by energy coming down the arms through supple wrists.

Being too clinical or even “scientific” about what I discovered would have robbed my playground adventure of its spontaneity, leaving a bundle of muscle memories behind. Instead, I brought them HOME to share with students who responded in kind with a plethora of new ideas to bounce about.

Now for a sprinkle of routines:


The Relaxed Thumb