How to Practice Piano Scales and Arpeggios – The Art Behind The Exercise

Scales are keys that open the path to any musical piece.
~Franz Liszt

Ilinca Vartic. How to Practice Piano Scales and Arpeggios - The Art Behind The Exercise. Scales and arpeggios… Should we practice them or not? This is one of the most controversial topics in the modern piano performing art!

Many pianists consider that these exercises are irreplaceable when it comes to technical brilliance and freedom of expression – while others think that they are boring, mechanical and outdated.

So who is right ❓

Actually, there is an element of truth in BOTH these opinions. Why?

Because scales in themselves are neither good nor bad. HOW (and WHY) we practice them makes all the difference! 😀

If used wisely, these exercises will empower your piano skills with countless benefits (technical, expressive AND artistic); if used mechanically and incorrectly, with the limited purpose of ‘improving your finger agility’, they will simply waste your time and add boredom to your practice!

That’s why it’s time for a change of perspective!

In the Russian piano school, we consider that correct scale practice is an Art. This art can open before you a whole new realm of piano possibilities, preparing you to play beautiful pieces that you considered unachievable before!

So let’s explore this exciting piano topic together – and let’s discover the art behind these famous exercises: scales and arpeggios! 😉

This is the Introductory Lesson of a brand new project on PianoCareerAcademy.com: it’s entitled How to Practice Scales and Arpeggios – The Art Behind the Exercise – and it’s a Holistic Step-by-Step Practice Guide (it consists of more than 80 lessons structured as progressive episodes) dedicated to the art of practicing scales, according to the system used in the Russian piano school for shaping the outstanding results that we see in the performance of great pianists.

This tutorial is addressed not only to piano students and enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels – but also to piano teachers who want to discover the professional principles of the Russian piano school :cool:.

So, are you ready to learn WHY we need to practice piano scales and arpeggios? Watch the video and you will find out! 😀

Introductory Lesson:
WHY We Need to Practice Scales. The Benefits of Piano Scales and Arpeggios.

Video highlights:
00:14. Introduction. An overview of the multi-episode project ‘How to Practice Piano Scales – The Art Behind the Exercise’.

02:15. WHY we need to practice scales: improving four fundamental aspects of your pianistic skill-set.

02:40. Analyzing the technical benefits of scale practice.
02:58. Scales are the perfect piano warm-up!
03:30. Scales will help you to develop the most important elements of piano technique (demonstration).
04:50. Scales – an encyclopedia of technical patterns and fingering formulas (examples from classical and romantic music).

08:54. We all learn by doing: Improving your theoretical understanding of modes and tonalities by practicing scales.
10:42. The expressive benefits of practicing scales.
11:47. Make sure that your scale practice is not missing one magical ingredient: QUALITY!
12:33. The MEGA-benefit of scale practice: mental training!

13:16. Conclusion.

Practicing scales is an exciting, motivating and rewarding journey! Now that you are ‘acquainted’ with the main benefits of these magical exercises, it’s time to take action, to start practicing – and to enjoy the results! 😎

Get access to all the other Video Lessons from this scale series (starting with the Beginner Level and reaching the most advanced virtuosic variations) by becoming a member of my Piano Coaching Program at PianoCareerAcademy.com ;).

In each Lesson, we will go behind the curtain to reveal exclusive information that you will not find in typical scale books or tutorials 😎

In the Private Members Area you will also discover hundreds of other piano playing tutorials focused on a new approach to piano playing that will transform your expressive & technical skills and bring them to a whole new level!

And now – a little advice:

Don’t forget that a good piano technique is not a purpose in itself. It is simply a very useful tool that allows you to create meaning, value, expression and artistry in your performance. Keep this in mind when working on your scales – and your practice will never be boring, mechanical or counterproductive!

Now I’ll post the key points from this tutorial in written form (for those of you who prefer reading to watching videos)! ;)

Practicing scales in a systematic manner will improve four fundamental aspects of your pianistic skill-set:

  • Your technique,
  • Your theoretical understanding of tonalities and your harmonic thinking,
  • Your hearing,
  • Your expressiveness.

Now let’s take a closer look at the technical benefits – because they ARE the main ones when it comes to scales.

1. Incorporating scales in your daily practice routine is the most efficient shortcut to technical mastery and brilliance – and it’s an indissoluble part of every great pianist’s journey.

2. Scales are the perfect piano warm-up! Besides developing your technique in a natural, harmonious way – scales will also prepare your arms, wrists and fingers for the practice to come. A proper warm-up is one of the most efficient productivity accelerators in musical performance – and it also reduces the risk of hand injuries, which can occur if you practice complicated pieces while your arm and hand muscles are still cold and stiff. A 15-30 minutes warm-up is the perfect start for a great practice session!

3. Practicing scales is the perfect way of developing the most important elements of piano technique:

  • Correct ‘whole-arm’ key attack;
  • Quality sound;
  • Freedom of motion, relaxed playing, stability and control;
  • Correct wrist action;
  • Finger strength;
  • Correct thumb crossings;
  • Dexterity, evenness, precision, speed;
  • Coordination;
  • Equality between hands;
  • Multitasking.

4. Scales are a true encyclopedia of pianistic technical patterns, of fingering ‘formulas’ and positional ‘blueprints’ that can be found in lots of pieces! Once you master these patterns, you’ll empower your technical ‘arsenal’ with a set of ‘universal keys’ that can unlock most passages and ‘crack the code’ of most technical difficulties – and, naturally, each time you come across such a pattern in a piece, you’ll be able to play it with ease, without losing time and effort for learning it from scratch.

Now that we made a very quick overview of the technical benefits of practicing scales – let’s see how these magical exercises can improve your hearing, your understanding of tonalities and your expressiveness.

We all know that we learn by doing. In other words – an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory (~ R. W. Emerson)!

Musical theory is not an easy topic – and you’ll never be able to grasp all its subtleties simply by reading books. Here is when scales come to your rescue!

1. Scales teach us in a practical (not theoretical) way the system of modes and tonalities and the circle of 4ths and 5ths. We can even say that scales are the multiplication table of the musical language!

Yes, we can learn by heart how many sharps of flats we have in a certain tonality, or why G Major comes after C Major in the circle of fifths – or why G Minor is the parallel of Bb Major – but only by applying this abstract knowledge to our practice, only by hearing and playing every note, only by feeling under our fingers the specific pianistic ‘topography’ of each tonality, we can transform it into real skill.

Scales will help you to assimilate all this information without even trying – and after one or two years of practice, you’ll know your way around tonalities like a true expert!

Naturally, this type of practice will simultaneously develop your hearing and your harmonic thinking. You’ll notice that you’ll gradually acquire a deeper understanding of the performed pieces, that you’ll hear better all their harmonic nuances – and that you’ll have lots of revelations when you’ll listen to music!

Even though scales are primarily a technical exercise, they have tremendous expressive benefits.

I’ll mention only a few of them:

If practiced correctly, scales will help you to master a wide diversity of articulation effects and dynamics. They will also improve your phrasing, your horizontal hearing and thinking (which are extremely important professional skills).

In the Russian piano school, we always set a certain artistic goal before practicing a scale or an arpeggio. For example – we play a scale on a singing, deep, expressive legato – imitating the beautiful sound of the violin. Or we play it non-legato, with a serious character – and we also make crescendo on the ascending movement; or we play it staccato, with a gracious playful character – and so on! We’ll talk more about these artistic goals in the next episodes, and now let’s move to the most important thing:

For enjoying all these technical and expressive benefits, you need to make sure that your scale practice is not missing a magical ingredient: QUALITY! You could practice scales many hours per day, playing each variation hundreds of times – but if you’re not practicing mindfully and correctly, your work will most likely be counterproductive. Remember that HOW we practice makes all the difference!

In a productive practice, every note and every run have to be played with awareness, in a focused manner, and your mind should always guide your fingers (and not the other way around, as it often happens with many students).

From this results another MEGA-benefit of scale-playing:

Correct scale practice is a great mental training – and it will improve your power of concentration, your awareness, your ability to focus on the task at hand, to be with your mind in the present moment – in other words, scales can be considered a wonderful piano meditation.

You’ll notice that it’s impossible to play a scale or an arpeggio well if your mind is not super-focused and always one step ahead. You’ll also notice that if you practice mindfully you’ll not make as many mistakes (by the way, mistakes and wrong notes are a sure sign that you lost your concentration) – and you’ll also save time and increase your productivity!

And now let’s make a short conclusion!

Scales and arpeggios are not a formal, boring piano exercise that benefits only your finger agility. If practiced correctly, they will transform your entire pianistic skill-set – starting with your awareness, imagination, musical understanding and hearing – and reaching your technique (in a very broad sense of this word) and your expressiveness.

Moreover, scale practice is not only super-useful, but also very exciting and captivating, so don’t miss the next episodes, where I’ll describe in detail, for each level, HOW we have to practice each scale variation for having maximum benefits and having fun in the process!

Simultaneously with the step-by-step lessons I will post a Bonus series of Behind the Scenes Lessons entitled The Magic Behind the Scales that will cover the fundamentals of scale practice, the theory of scale building (so that you’ll be able to build any scale from any note), the main fingering formulas, the tempo dilemma, the main mistakes that you have to avoid – and many other important things.

And that is not all! Because of the detailed progressive structure of our tutorial, you’ll never have to wonder again what variation you should play next – or if the scale you’re practicing is suitable for your level or not. I’m going to guide you every step of the way by adding to each video episode detailed downloadable scale charts for each and every level – so that you’ll always know WHAT variations to practice (in how many octaves, in what order, with what fingers), HOW to practice them and, of course, WHY should you practice them in the first place :).

Many new articles and video tutorials are coming soon on PianoCareer.com! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or (and now also on Pinterest!) to get instant updates, support and motivation! ;)

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22 Responses to “How to Practice Piano Scales and Arpeggios – The Art Behind The Exercise”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Cynthia Chan says:

    That’s fantastic Ilinca. Thank you for your great work, it helped me a lot.

  2. Patrick poladian says:

    Dedication ! Dedication !

  3. Neil says:

    This was a great lesson, thank you for making this video.

  4. Janice Mathison says:

    One word Ilinca, Awesome!!! I am excited for the remaining 79. Thank you so much for your time and dedication to the instruction of the greatest instrument ever evented, (that is in my opinion, and I play several others) but the pianoforte I love by far.

  5. Nicole says:

    Thank you for such an inspiring video – very encouraging!

  6. Endurance says:

    Thank you, for giving out this great information, you are a great teacher, and we appreciate your effort and time you spent, in making this lesson possible

  7. TOM COSTE says:

    I like your youtube video “How to Practice Piano Scales and Arpeggios – The Art Behind The Exercise”.
    How do I actually sign up to get this lesson?
    Thanks.
    Tom Coste
    tom39520@yahoo.com

    • Natalia says:

      Hi Tom!

      This is Natalia, Ilinca Vartic’s assistant at PianoCareerAcademy.com.

      You can get access to all the progressive episodes of Ilinca’s Scale Tutorial (and to many other hundreds of exclusive piano playing videos and articles) by becoming a member of our Piano Coaching Program at PianoCareerAcademy.com.

      For joining, go to the home page on PianoCareerAcademy.com (http://www.pianocareeracademy.com/) and then select a membership option below the video. If you have other questions about registration, please ask! 😉

      • Natalia says:

        And now – a short description of the step-by-step Scale Tutorial (entitled ‘How to Practice Piano Scales and Arpeggios – the Art Behind the Exercise’):

        It consists of many progressive Lessons-episodes (in video form) where Ilinca shares, in a very detailed manner, the entire scale system we use in the Russian piano school. The Lessons are advancing simultaneously on 3 levels – Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced.

        In each step-by-step lesson you will go ‘behind the curtain’ and discover things that you will not find in typical scale books or tutorials. For each scale or arpeggio variation Ilinca analyzes in detail:

        1. Its structure – according to the Russian method and also to the circle of fifths;
        2. Its ‘key formula’ – or the specific technical patterns (hand positions) that it will help you develop;
        3. Its benefits;
        4. Its main technical difficulties – with detailed ‘smart’ solutions;

        Ilinca is also sharing with you:
        1. Preparatory exercises (which are especially useful for beginners);
        2. Detailed downloadable fingering charts;
        3. Special expressive tasks in the best traditions of the Russian piano school, and – the most important thing –
        4. Lots of video practice tips that will help you to master each scale and play it with ease, fluidity, brilliance and comfort.

        Because of the detailed progressive structure of our tutorial, you’ll never have to wonder again what variation you should play next – or if the scale you’re practicing is suitable for your level or not. Ilinca is going to guide you every step of the way by adding to each video episode detailed downloadable scale charts for each and every level – so that you’ll always know WHAT variations to practice (in how many octaves, in what order, with what fingers), HOW to practice them and, of course, WHY should you practice them in the first place :).

        And that’s not all! In the Members Area you’ll also have access to hundreds of other exclusive videos/articles on the most important piano topics, many scores (including lots of graded scores for beginners), motivational videos, health advice – and the list has only started! 😉 Ilinca posts new tutorials each week – and our enormous database is in constant growth.

        She is currently working on these new projects:

        1. Piano Masterpieces – Detailed Video Lessons for All Levels. Ilinca takes one piece at a time (alternating levels, styles and genres) and she analyzes it in detail, also sharing LOTS of practice tips.

        2. Nikolaev – Russian School of Piano Playing. Step-by-Step Video Practice Guide for Piano Beginners. This Practice Guide will help you to learn how to play piano from scratch, in an enjoyable progressive manner – harmoniously developing all your technical/expressive/sight-reading skills :). You’ll gradually discover all the professional secrets of the Russian piano school – they will allow you to ‘conquer’ any piece with ease! 😉

        3. Piano Masterclasses. Once in several months, you can share your recordings in our ‘online masterclass’, so that Ilinca could give you better practice advice! 😉

        If you have other questions, please let me know!

        I hope that my answer was helpful – and we’re looking forward to welcoming you to our community! 😉

        Sincerely,
        Natalia
        Customer Support
        PianoCareerAcademy.com

  8. Prasana kumar says:

    Hi Ilinca madam,
    This post shows me the importance of scale practice.I came to know that scales are the perfect piano warm up.All these days I didn’t warmed up before playing.After reading this article I am eager to practice scales.Thanks for sharing the benefits of scale practice.These benefits motivate me to practice scales.The scales gives us technical mastery and brilliance.you are also a teacher to me.Thanks for sharing.

  9. Reginald says:

    Hello,
    Do I have to know how to read sheet music first to benefit from the Scales lessons?

    Thanks

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Reginald!

      You can easily follow my step-by-step Scale Course without knowing how to read musical notation :). However, in order to understand all the important theory behind the scale system (the Circle of Fifths, all tonalities and their key signatures, the easy logic behind their patterns etc.), it would be much more useful for you to learn musical notation as well. Otherwise, your learning experience will not be 100% complete.

      The good news is that you can do so by following the step-by-step Video Course for Beginners (which you can also find in the Members Area of PianoCareerAcademy.com, along with hundreds of other tutorials on important piano topics). This Course will help you to learn how to play piano from scratch, in an enjoyable progressive manner – harmoniously developing all your technical/expressive/sight-reading skills). Then, when you reach Lesson No. 47 for Beginners, you can simultaneously start practicing scales.

      So, by following the Course for Beginners you will become very good at musical notation really shortly, because it is explained in a fun, step-by-step, practical manner. Plus, by acquiring this very useful (and fairly easy) skill, you will have access to a wide musical universe, being able to decipher and learn ANY piece independently :).

      Good luck ;),
      Ilinca

  10. Vesna Kostic says:

    Thank you for a great tutorial for practicing scales.
    I belong to the old school that place significant importance on practicing scales along with mastering Czerny’s works.
    In my opinion the way we play scales can tell a lot about our imagination and ability to improvise. I believe that the most difficult scale is C Major as it challenges our uneven length of fingers and shows all our shortcomings.

  11. James Eigel says:

    Hi Ilinca,

    You must realize you are a gifted pianist. I know you’ve worked very, very hard, to get to the level you have attained. I am an older ‘student’ and absolutely love the piano, however I don’t think with all the practice in the world I could ever attain your level of expertise. Gd bless you and thank you for sharing your gift with us!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi James!

      Thank you so much for your appreciation! 😀 😉

      By the way, reaching a certain level is not so much a question of age – it’s first of all about the time you put in, and the quality of your practice. You will find a detailed article on this topic in our FAQs at PianoCareerAcademy.com (answer No. 23).

      Enjoy your practice ;),
      Ilinca

  12. Amy says:

    Thanks for the awesome tutorial! 🙂
    What are your thoughts about playing Hanon exercises?

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