The Ins and Outs, Twists and Turns of Scale Playing


Dr. William Leland
Las Cruces, NM USA


he great Josef Hofmann, who without question possessed one of the three or four greatest piano techniques of all time, once wrote: "Those pesky scales! Why must they always be so hard--in fact, the hardest thing to do on the piano?"

If you have trouble with scales, you're in good company. Besides, when you come right down to it, the human hand and the piano keyboard are not very well suited to each other. The hand, with it's marvelous "opposing thumb", is generally used as a unit, opening, closing and shaping itself into countless configurations that grip, hold, pull, turn, twist and manipulate things. But, on the piano keyboard, we have to line up its five digits--of all different lengths and strengths--on a flat plane, and use them independently to strike and release little levers. And if that weren't enough, we're supposed to do this over a distance of four feet, zipping back and forth and making smooth connections between the positions.


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It's pretty generally agreed that one of the most important areas of good technique is the study of the major and minor scales. To be sure, scales do not embody a complete kind of exercise--the fifth fingers are used only at the ends of the white key scales, and in the black key scales they're not used at all--nor would we recommend them for the tiny hands of young beginners. But scales are important for much more than their mechanical usefulness. Traditional Western music has for more than four centuries been based on the major/minor system of harmony: 24 keys, each with a tonal center. And the building blocks for every one of these keys are the notes of its diatonic scale, which provide the 'alphabet' for its chords and melodies, just as the 26 letters serve to form all the words in the English language. Learning scales means learning the basic language of music, and it would be difficult to find any other technical figuration that shows up more often in the traditional piano literature.

Playing them well is another matter. To play a scale of even one octave the hand must shift its position, and in countless scale passages it has to shift two or more times. How do we make these shifts smoothly, with no break, no unevenness of rhythm, and no unintentional accents?

Controversy still rages over how best to do this. Should scales be played with a thumb-under connection or with a quick shift of hand position? Well, this question was settled--or should have been--a long time ago by Otto Ortmann, whose exhaustive investigations were recorded in his book, The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique, published in 1929. Ortmann set up a scientific laboratory at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, using elaborate equipment that included tiny lights attached to the hands, electrical sensors under the piano keys, and high speed photography; his subjects for the experiments were professional concert pianists.

Ortmann found that smooth scale playing produces both kinds of movement: the thumb does indeed pass under the hand, but not necessarily all the way to the first note of the next position; the remaining distance is covered by the hand shift. Moreover, the technique varies somewhat with tempo: the quick shift assumes more importance as the speed increases.

Two problems almost always arise at the beginning of scale studies: the first is the initial placement of the hand. No less an authority than Frederic Chopin recommended beginning with a scale that has a lot of black keys, to give the thumb more room to maneuver, but virtually everyone starts with C Major, one of the hardest scales to play well. So the thumb plunks straight down on Middle C, and right away the hand is placed into a position that makes it impossible for the thumb to reach its next note without twisting the whole hand around:

The second problem involves the actual playing of the thumb. Ortmann found that the major difficulty here was not moving the thumb sideways, but making the keystroke with the thumb alone, while it's under the hand; the natural tendency is to punch the note with the arm instead:

With these difficulties in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that the first thing to do in the study of scales is to practice simple finger exercises that isolate the special movement of the thumb, and place it in its proper positions.

First of all, in reaching under be sure that you move the whole thumb from the third joint, which is located back at the wrist; don't crook the nail joint. (A good way to get the feel of this is to pinch a pencil in the crease that will arise at the base of the palm.)

Then begin a simple exercise, using only the thumb and forefinger: place the 2nd finger of each hand on the notes B and F, respectively; then place the thumbs underneath on the surfaces of A and G, without depressing. Note that in this position the hands have to be somewhat 'pigeon-toed', that is, pointed inward:

Now, try this five-step exercise:

Lightly tap the thumbs on their key surfaces, making absolutely sure that they do their own work--no hand dipping!

As this gets more comfortable, lightly play the two thumb notes (A and G) together, again without moving the hands either sideways or up and down.

Keeping the hands quiet, move the thumbs back and forth by alternately tapping the surfaces of A and C (left hand) and G and E (right hand). Note that the thumbs will have to strike the C and E on an angle.

Repeat step three, but play the thumb notes instead of tapping them.

Play all three notes back and forth, starting with the thumbs underneath: A-B-C-B-A (left) together with G-F-E-F-G (right). Nothing should move sideways but the two thumbs.

Numerous variations of this exercise are possible, always arranging the hands in mirror fashion and playing in contrary motion. For example, the next logical step would be to practice with four notes in each group, so as to pass the thumb under the third finger. After that, one should also try figures using black keys; a comfortable mirror figure might use part of A-flat Major in the left hand together with E Major in the right:

To practice moving the thumb under the fourth finger, it's best to begin with the pattern that's easiest to reach; this would be a five-note section of the scale of G-flat Major, with both hands using the notes F, G-flat, A-flat, B-flat and C-flat--but playing, of course, in contrary motion. It's also wise here to move the thumb under as the second finger plays, leaving it poised over it's next note until time to play; this will help separate the sideways movement from the downstroke:

These exercises employ both the proper hand positions and the proper movements needed for smooth scale playing. The 'pigeon-toed' angle of the hands is necessary to position the thumb correctly without twisting, though the degree of angle will vary a little with different keys. Keeping this slight angle constant will permit the hands to move back and forth over the keyboard as if on a track, and the forearms should move with them, keeping the same angle as far as possible. Practicing these movements until they feel natural will go a long way towards improving both scales and arpeggios. Illustrated in Videos 6 are the scales of C major, D-flat major, and E major:

Page created: 3/29/06
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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