How to practice scales and arpeggios

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I have mentioned before in these lessons that you should spend about a third of your practice time on theory, including scales. In today’s lesson, I want to go into a bit more detail on why that is necessary and also tell you exactly how to get started.

Like you, I started playing scales at an early age, and probably like you, I quit playing them as soon as I could. It was years later before I figured out how important this kind of work is to your development.  If you have time to practice only one thing during a day, practice scales.

First of all, it is important to understand why this kind of practice is important. Your first guess might be because it can help your technique. This is unquestionably true, but it is not the main reason. The main reason is because playing scales and arpeggios will help you understand music better. As you learn to play the scales and chords in each key, you will grow to understand the key and be able to play in it instinctively.

With this in mind, don’t just focus on things like fingering and speed. Study the notes you are playing and eventually you will “own” the key they are in.

I do not mean to imply that speed and fingering is no important. However, keep in mind that what you learn when you practice scales is rarely actually applied in a song as a scale. When it is, the scale you play will likely not start or end on the tonic (first note in the key). It may be just a feet notes in a row. Your job is to know what those few notes should be; that is what practicing scales will teach you.

Below, I will show you some scales and exercises that you can start with each day. They are far from exhaustive, but will get you started in the right direction. At the beginning, your hands are likely to feel tired, but that is fine
as long as you do not feel pain. If you feel pain, stop for the day.

By the way, practice both major and minor scales.  As you probably know, there are several different minor scales. You can play any you want, but my preference would be that you play the Dorian scale for your minor scales.

The Dorian scale is a major scale with a lowered third and seventh. An easy way to play this scale is by just borrowing the key signature of the major key a whole step lower. In other words, C Dorian would use the
key signature of Bb which has two flats–Bb and Eb.

Why learn the Dorian scale instead of the more popular harmonic minor? Here is the reason-we are going to be using a lot of minor 7th chords in coming months, and the Dorian scale can be played without conflict with a minor 7th chord.

If this talk about Dorian scales is confusing you, just ignore it for the time being and learn any minor scale you are comfortable with. Trust me when I say you can go a long way without ever learning about musical modes
such as Dorian.

Now, here are some scales to practice-you do not have to do all of them every day. Just do just one or two sets a day. For example, do parallel motion one day, contrary motion on the next, parallel motion a third apart on the next day, and so on. However, do practice these scales in every key.

1. Play major and minor scales with both hands for four octaves in parallel motion (both hands
moving in the same direction).

2. Play major and minor scales with both hands for two octaves in contrary motion. Here is what
it looks like in C:

.

3. Play major and minor scales with the right hand starting on the root and the left hand starting on the third.  Here is one octave, but play four octaves.

4. Play major and minor scales with the right hand starting on the sixth and the left hand starting on the root.

Now, here are some arpeggios to practice. Again, you do not have to do all of these every day. But, whatever you do practice should be practiced in every key.

1.  Play major and minor arpeggios (root, third, and fifth) with both hands for four octaves.  Here is an example with two octaves in one hand.

2. Play major and minor arpeggios (root, third, and fifth) with the right hand starting on the root and the left hand starting on the third.

3. Play major and minor arpeggios (root, third, and fifth) with the right hand starting on the sixth and the left hand starting on the root.

4. Play major and minor arpeggios with the 7th added.

5. Play major and minor arpeggios with the 9th added.

Notice that I am not giving fingerings for any of these scales or arpeggios. You can get the fingerings on many other websites if you don’t know them.  Or, just work out your own fingerings. As you develop your skill, fingering becomes instinctive out of necessity. You will find that it will be impossible to memorize fingerings for every situation.

If this seems like a lot of work, just do as much as you can each day. If you setting aside thirty minutes to practice the piano, just stop this part of your practice at wherever you are after ten minutes. Above all, play lightly-keep your hands loose and free. You will sound better and will lower your risk of injury as well.