Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Teaching Scales: One Comes Before Two

Natalie asks a great question for open discussion at her blog Music Matters. The question is basically, “How do you teach students to rip off their scales in 4 octaves, played in 16th notes at quarter=126 BPM?” I have to be honest and say that, due to having started studios in 4 different cities, and moving away from each one after only 2-3 years, I haven’t yet had students reach anything close to this level of scale playing since most of them started with me as beginners or struggling transfers. However, we are now permanently settled into our current city, and I expect that my students will be staying with me for a long time. (Yay!) Natalie's question sparks a lot of other questions for me - when is the appropriate time to expect students to play scales at this level, and how should I build those skills over the years? In what order should I introduce scales? How quickly should I transition them from one octave to two and from hands separately to hands together? How fast should a 3rd year student, for instance, be expected to play scales? Here are my thoughts on the pacing of scale acquisition, how I'm handling it in my studio.

At present, I am using, with a few minor changes, the syllabus from the National Music Certificate Program as a technique curriculum guide. (NMCP is the American branch of the Royal Conservatory exams.) I’ve decided that if my students can do what is required by this program year by year, they are making acceptable progress. One of the things I like about this program is the careful pacing and gradual acquisition of skills over the 12-year curriculum.

NMCP introduces scales quite slowly in the first few years, adding a few more scales each year, and a few more levels of difficulty. And they don't simply progress through the circle of fifths, an approach that makes more sense for acquiring theory knowledge than the actual playing of scales. For instance, a student taking the Preparatory B exam (repertoire is approximately at the level of The Music Tree 2A) is required to play major and minor pentascales; C, F,and G major scales hands separately in one octave; A minor (natural) hands separately in one octave; and C major in contrary motion, one octave hands together.

The Grade 1 exam asks for C, G, and D major scales in 2 octaves, still hands separately, plus harmonic minors in A and E. The tempo requirement is only a tad faster than the year before. This makes sense. Most students at this level aren't playing literature with more than 1 or 2 sharps. Grade 2 adds only one more major and one more minor and increases the tempo requirement. The pace at which new scales are added and the tempo required picks up considerably in the middle grades, and by Grade 10, students are playing all major and minor scales, hands together in sixteenths, 4 octaves, 120 BPM. In addition, they are playing "formula pattern" scales - these are the ones that split into contrary motion at the halfway point. Students sometimes skip a level or two in their progress through NMCP, but it is generally the case that a Grade 10 student has been slowly and steadily building his scale-playing skills, year by year, scale by scale, one notch on the metronome at a time over 12 years. A gradual approach like this one with careful consideration given to the order in which scales are introduced strikes me as being the most likely to produce a secure technique.

I've been surprised to discover that following the NMCP curriculum for technique has caused me to relax my expectations for scale playing - not increase them. But, then, I think I really needed to stop and consider how important these early scale years are in solidifying basic technique - automatic scale fingering, good arm motion, good hand shape, evenness, etc. I have a friend who says, “We have a saying back home. It is this: one comes before two.” Sometimes I think we teachers are too eager to move out of the beginner stage into more difficult literature and technique. Becoming a musician is a lifelong journey - not one we must complete before graduating high school. And so, while I would never hold back a student, I've decided that I am happy to pursue an unhurried and logical pace in technical growth during the first 3-4 years especially, while keeping depth of musicality the goal above all.

I do have a few practice tricks for playing scales and will share them in another post.

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