Scales matter. Piano teachers are renowned for insisting that this is true, examination boards reward mastery of these patterns, and piano students compare speed and distance as if they are training for field and track.
I talked before about why I think scales matter, in my Scales as Propaganda post, and this post follows up a lot of the ideas I put forward there. One of the main ideas in the Scales as Propaganda post is that the reason scales are important is not for technical facility per se (finger strength, fluency, tonal control and so forth) but for a broader (and fundamentally imaginative) ideational and geographical facility with the diatonic patterns that underpin music from the Baroque through to the end of the Romantic period (chromaticisms notwithstanding).
What this means in practice is that if you know how to play the major scale in each of its 12 permutations you will have a reasonably high fluency in sight reading music written in a major tonality. If you don’t know how to play this major scale pattern in each of its 12 permutations then you will surely struggle when you find yourself in an unfamiliar transposition.
I’ve just experienced a startling reinforcement of this principle with my wonderful post-Grade 8 student who has been working on Beethoven’s Opus 90 for just the past 8 days. Opus 90 is a 2 movement sonata, 1st movement in E minor and triple time, 2nd movement in E Major and duple time. This is a hard play if you don’t have big hands, but this student can play the tenths without even stretching so all the technical challenges faced by the normally-proportioned 16 year old are obliterated for this particular student purely through a happy coincidence of human growth hormone and genetics.
Not only this, but the sonata suits this student just perfectly on an emotional and communicative level as well.
So I had high expectations when the student returned after just a week of working on the sonata – expectations that were not disappointed as he played through some number of pages of the first movement. Learning was solid, and a grasp of the broader structure was already emerging. He had isolated passages that were technically challenging and had already put a strategy in place to master these passages over the next week or so.
But then we turned to the second movement and he said ruefully, “well, I haven’t put it hands together yet”. To be honest, his achievements with the first movement were already so impressive that any teacher would not have been surprised to have the student say “I didn’t actually get to practice the second movement”, but I must admit that I was surprised to hear that he had decided to attempt this second movement with the hands playing separately. The second movement is not wildly difficult to sight read per se – especially if one chooses a very relaxed tempo right from the outset. To choose to separate the musical information into ‘hands’ rather than moderating the degree of difficulty through reduced tempo is quite a significant choice at this standard of performance and learning.
“Have you ever played anything in E Major before?” I asked, and he laughed and said, “no!”. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he absolutely hasn’t – but he has never learned a piece in E Major with an awareness that he is learning a piece in E Major, and he has no template for thinking through what playing a piece in the E Major pattern might feel like or look like. This makes the task of sight reading this second movement, even at a snail’s pace, quite beyond his comfort zone or even his ‘challenge’ zone. Every note is a mystery – black or white? – and his fingers have no sense of flow around these black and white note patterns.
“Do you know how to play the E Major scale?” I asked. “I’m not sure” was the response. Now, I’m absolutely certain he will have played E Major in contrary motion at some early stage of his pianistic career, but the learning of the scale pattern was not sufficient to connect with the real repertoire context of learning a piece in this key.
Rather than spend time in the lesson working on two or four bars separate hands (the lamination technique) we ignored the movement altogether, instead spending a few minutes exploring E Major scale patterns.
This week he will be practicing E Major in similar motion an octave apart, 3rds apart and 6ths apart. He’ll be practicing E Major in contrary motion with both hands starting on E, with the right hand starting on G sharp while the left starts on E, and then with the left hand starting on G sharp while the right starts on G. He will then play through the root position triads of the E Major scale pattern through a one octave pattern ascending and descending. If he gets time he will then proceed to practice these triads in their first and second inversions.
Our goal this week is to completely familiarise him with what the E Major pattern feels like (and looks like) in any number of manifestations. Our theory is that once he has invested a couple of hours (at least) of his life into dwelling within the confines of E Major-ness he will return to the Opus 90 second movement completely capable of thinking through the sight reading challenges it poses. This, we further theorise, will save him potentially ten hours of tedious practice, working hand at a time, note by note, mastering small gestures and phrases rather experiencing (and learning) the overarching melodic lines and harmonic movements.
Maybe one week, even with 20+ minutes a day, won’t be enough of an immersion in E Major to make this transition from foreigner to native, but I think the odds are good. The pattern is being explored sideways, backwards, inside out as well as front on and in harmony. It’s an interesting experiment with the good that knowing a scale can bring – and I’ll keep you informed!