Playing Scales (part 1)

Paul Harris considers... playing scales (part 1)

I was talking to a teacher recently who, with a heavy heart, a deep sigh and a rather hang-dog expression, announced, “all my pupils are bad at scales.” “Oh dear,” I replied sympathetically, and felt an article coming on... 

In fact the teacher’s despairing and unhappy remark needs quite a lot of unpacking. And we do need to unpack it, because she’s wrong – all her pupils are not bad at scales. Her despondency originates from a basic misunderstanding. Let’s begin with the ‘bad at’ bit. To be ‘bad at’ something requires some form of comparison. And comparisons, as we know, are odious. 

Let’s imagine a world in which there are no scales. One day you are experimenting with musical patterns and you invent the first ever scale. 

For a time you are the only person in the world who plays this scale. Is it possible for you to play it badly? Of course not! Because there would be no-one with whom to compare yourself. But other musicians get to hear about this scale, and, because it’s fun, begin to play it too. And then they create new scales. And then someone decides that playing scales can be tested and makes up all sorts of rules and regulations. Now there is a lot of scale playing with which to make comparisons. There are those playing their scales faster, others playing them in a dizzying range of patterns and across a greater range of notes. If we like, we can compare and judge our scale playing against these other scale players. But here we reach a major philosophical bridge. And it’s one we must cross. For if we don’t, we set up the potential for everlasting negative thinking. 

We may not be able to play our scales as fast as someone else – doesn’t make our slower scales bad. We may have to play them very slowly to ensure the right notes – nothing wrong with that. We may not be able to play as many varied patterns as someone else – doesn’t make those we can play bad. We may not even be able to play scales with an even pulse – again it doesn’t make our rhythmically relaxed scales bad. We need to recalibrate our thinking. We need to be able to accept a wider range of what we understand as ‘good’.

Perhaps we can only play the mini-micro scale of C major (just the first three notes.) It doesn’t make us bad at scales if that’s the only one we know. And if we enjoy it, and play it confidently and with character, because it’s the basis of a piece we’re learning, then – in our limited way – we are good at scales. 

But, after a little more discussion I discovered what my teacher friend really meant. She meant that her pupils didn’t learn their exam scales. And therefore they were bad at scales. But simply labelling them as bad is a dead end. I’m sure they could play one or two of the scales – even if only at a very slow tempo. There’s always somewhere along that continuum (can’t do it – can do it) that we can put ourselves. As a pianist I’m a fair distance from being able to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – but I can play the first few bars – and quite well too! What’s the point of that you may ask? It’s a start, and though the task ahead may be quite substantial, if I’m on for it, then at least there’s a chance. 

And this is the central issue. If our pupils are enjoying the process, then there is every chance they’ll succeed. If they want to do the exam and it’s the right exam for them to be doing and they are doing it at the right time, then they should eventually be able to play those scales. And if we make the preparation fun and imaginative, then that outcome is even more likely. 

We all do things differently. It’s inevitable. Some of our pupils will be able to play their scales in a way that compares favourably with exam expectations, others will play their scales in an infinite number of other ways. So I want that teacher to flip her thinking and accept all the different ways that her pupils may play scales. And accept that none of them are bad. She’ll become a much happier teacher as a result.

Part 2 next time: how can we make the process fun and imaginative?