If you have studied piano for any length of time, you may be starting to integrate some piano exercises into your daily practice. Some exercises may be short repetitive patterns, while some may be part of a larger progressive collection like the famous Hanon exercises. Perhaps scales and triads are your focus right now. What are all these exercises for? Often we think that scale-like exercises are for developing speed, yet that is only part of the story. They are your training ground for developing your technique and musicality.
When you first begin to learn various piano exercises, you are developing your understanding of the keyboard, as well as building some essential finger strength and dexterity. The first set of exercises that we usually begin to practice are scales and triads. You instructor or method books will set out a gradual system of learning all the major and minor scales, chords, and arpeggios. You will probably first work on two octave scales in keys up to four sharps and flats. The hands will play in parallel motion.
With each scale that you learn, try to memorize its notes and fingerings as soon as possible. Practice your scales and chords without looking at your fingers if you can, or at least set this as a short term goal. As your studies progress, you will learn the remaining key centers and begin to practice your scales and arpeggios up to four octaves. You also may be introduced to a handful of different patterns consisting of parallel and contrary motions between the two hands. Take the time to learn them well. It is scales and chordal patterns that will make up the core of your technical exercises for your piano playing life.
Practicing piano exercises like scales and chords facilitate both your ability to learn new music quickly, and play it with more musicality. Different pieces, after all, are in some sense made up of different segments of chords and scales.
As mentioned, we also think of practicing scales as a method of building speed. This is true, and playing scales with a metronome is one of the time honored methods of building speed. But this is not their only application. Use your different piano exercises to work on other aspects of your technique as well. Use them to work on your tone. Play them slowly and listen carefully to each note that your are sounding. Each one should sound clear and full. You can also work on articulations with scales and chords. Pick an articulation like staccato or legato, bring the tempo down, and once again really listen to the sound you are making.
One of my favorite techniques to work on with scales is dynamics: crescendos, diminuendos, terraced dynamics and dynamics in various combinations. To work on crescendos with scales, pick a starting dynamic, say pianissimo, and a final one, say fortissimo two octaves higher. With the dynamics in mind, first play the softest note, then then the loudest one. Finally, play the scale starting with the softest one and making each note incrementally louder. It may take you a few tries to work this out. I usually run out of volume too soon, when I first start practicing dynamics in this manner. Once you have an understanding of how to practice basic dynamics, make more complex combinations, always with a particular dynamic as a goal for a particular pitch.
Scales are also a great way to work out rhythmic techniques. For example, work on various types of tuplets with a scale pattern and the metronome. First, set at a modest tempo for the pulse, and practice different subdivisions of the bear separately. You should be able to master two through to seven subdivisions of the beat. Once you can subdivide the beat into these values, practice changing between them. Being able to change between duplets and triplets easily is something required of many pieces. Try changing between quadruplets and quintuplets as well. You can also work on cross-rhythms in a similar manner, such as three against two, and five against three. In three against two, you are playing three even notes across two beats. We often see this rhythm written as quarter-note triplets in common time.
Practicing scales, chords, and other types of piano exercises with specific musical and technical goals in mind will breath new life into your practice, as well as improve your overall technique, musicality, and enjoyment of the piano. I hope the ideas presented hear will inspire you to explore some of your own.
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