Exploring Scales

When did you last play a scale or arpeggio? Probably in the last piece of music that you played. There are few pieces of music, at least in the western classical tradition, that do not contain scales and arpeggios somewhere. Familiarity with these musical building blocks assists greatly in secure performance; for centuries piano teachers have incorporated them into their curriculum, and many examination systems require them as part of their assessment.

Several years ago I was asked by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) to write five support books, Scale Explorer, for the revised scales exam requirements that began in 2021. The books finally went to press during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, and that very same week the ABRSM decided to offer an alternative examination in which the candidate uploaded a video of four pieces, and the supporting tests (scales, aural and sight-reading) were replaced by an assessment of the ‘performance as a whole’.  And although some ‘face-to-face’ exams, with supporting tests, have now returned in the UK, the ‘Performance’ exam (as it is called) is likely to become a permanent offering in the future alongside the traditional ‘Practical’ exams.

However, I think teachers will agree that background work in scales, sight-reading, and listening, are still essential for students preparing for a performance, and if you haven’t seen the ‘Scale Explorer’ books it might be worth having a look.

Here is a link to me talking about each book and playing pieces from it.

The books, one for each of Grades 1 to 5, are designed to support the new ABRSM scales syllabus. This syllabus, though the result of extensive research and testing amongst many teachers, has not been welcomed universally, perhaps because the number of scales has been reduced, and no longer are all keys required in Grade 5.  It does have some advantages too, though:

  • For Grades 1 to 4, each scale or arpeggio is introduced hands separately, and it then appears as hands together in the next grade, so there is a sense of progression and consolidation.
  • All keys are covered by the time Grade 5 is reached, in most cases more than once, but the pressure of having to have every scale and arpeggio in readiness for one single exam is avoided.

My aim in writing the books was to present scales as something rather more than mere technical exercises, integrating them with other performance aspects, in the same way as I did for sight-reading in my ‘Joining the Dots’ series. There is a section for each key encountered in that grade, and in each section you will usually find:

  • Workouts, which approach and rehearse the fingering patterns for each scale or arpeggio by breaking it into bite-size pieces
  • The complete scale or arpeggio (the music for the entire scale/arpeggio syllabus for the grade is included in the book)
  • Starters, short melodies that use the scale or arpeggio in one hand only
  • Piece or Pieces, which consolidate the shapes and patterns already introduced, in a range of musical styles
  • The Tune Factory  – simple improvisation/composition ideas in the key being studied.
  • And at the end of each book, there are some longer pieces and a duet.

The Preface includes warm-up exercises, and a list of scales grouped by fingering patterns. 

In the inside back cover there is a revision chart, to help the pupil plan their practice.

Here are some sample pages:

This first example is the F major scale section from Book 1. The emphasis is on learning the scale with hands separately, and a foreshadowing of hands together (introduced in Book 2) is given in the final bars of the second piece. Book 1 also contains useful material on how scales and arpeggios are constructed, the differences between major and minor, and fingering technique.

From Book 1

This next example is from Book 3. The key of A major has been introduced hands separately in Book 2, with ‘workouts’, ‘starters’, ‘tune factory’, and ‘pieces’ – so here it is consolidated with hands together workouts, and pieces which integrate the scales and arpeggios into the musical mix. Notice how the exam requirements are highlighted with the little ‘Explorer’ compass symbol.

From Book 3

The last example is from Book 5 – a double page spread for A flat major. This key has been introduced hands separately in Book 4: here the scale is still hands separately, but with staccato articulation: the arpeggio is legato, hands together. Both pieces are designed to highlight these aspects within the context of a more wide-ranging exploration of the key and its fingering patterns, and the page ends with an opportunity for composition or improvisation with the ‘tune factory’.

From Book 5

In summary, these books aim to enhance musical understanding through familiarity with keys and their related finger-patterns, and to provide a range of enjoyable material to keep the learner technically and musically fit. 

And from my point of view, it concentrated the mind considerably to write short pieces as ‘repertoire supplements’ which focussed on scale/arpeggio shapes and fingering patterns while also having something to say musically.  It was an enjoyable journey for me, and I hope it will be an enjoyable journey for its users too!