“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

Scales and Arpeggios: The Building Blocks of Music and Technique

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to my soon-to-be-published book, The Pianist's guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios: As They Occur in Pieces you Want to Play:   

            One sunny afternoon, just as my weekly piano class drew to a close and I was racing to my studio, one of my colleagues from the local music community confronted me. We stood in the lobby of the recital hall at the university where I had just begun my tenure, I with one hand on the door. “Is it true?” she spouted, her face a puzzle of surprise and indignation. “You don’t believe in scales?”
      The way she framed her question with the word believe struck me as particularly telling. I had, in her view, committed a sacrilege. Apparently, word had spread in the piano community that I, a blasphemer, preached against the gospel and she would have none of it.
      I did not think of myself as a blasphemer. Not then and not now. I am a realist, an advocate of practical use of time and energy and my advocacy is based on knowledge and experience. But her indignation gave me pause and I knew immediately what had pressed her buttons.   
    At the first lessons with my students I quizzed them on scales and arpeggios. Did they know all the keys? Could they play all of the major and melodic minor scales hands together fluently at a moderate tempo for at least two octaves? (Notice I don’t include the harmonic minor, as it is for all practical purposes what its name implies, a function of harmony and not particularly useful as we careen horizontally up and down the keyboard.) I carefully observed their use of the thumb, which in many cases was not well understood, so that became a separate technical issue. Then I blasphemed. If the scales and arpeggios were fluent, I would not require daily drilling and I certainly did not want to hear them. The life of a college piano student, complex and time-challenged as it is, should not be encumbered with useless ritual. Yes, useless, time-wasting ritual.

But, Really, Are Scales and Arpeggios Necessary?

     Well, yes and no. We need to understand the topography of the keyboard and elementary keyboard harmony in order to navigate the keyboard’s shoals and depths. Since we propel our hands laterally up and down the keyboard by means of certain navigational tools, of which the thumb is one, how when and where to activate the thumb has always been and remains a primary issue. So a clear feel for the relationships of white to black keys and the appropriate digits for depressing them is essential. Learn the patterns.
     But do we really need to drill these learned patterns on a daily basis as, for example, in a technical exercise? Once learned and worked-in to the point of being automatic, it is no longer necessary or even desirable to repeat them in their root positions for the purpose of gaining finger “strength” or “agility” or “independence.”  Rarely do scales and arpeggios occur in music the way we learn them in books, that is, until now in this book.
     When is a scale not a scale? Scales and Arpeggios serve various purposes in the music we play. They can provide melodic interest, connective tissue, embellishment or an element of brilliance for its own sake. Our job as pianists is to notice this and organize our thinking accordingly. Here is a perfectly innocent G major scale minding its own business:

Innocent G major Scale
Now add some rhythm and the innocent G major scale becomes a melody on its way somewhere:

Melody in G major

Add some harmony and perhaps a touch of harp and we have a ballet by Tchaikovsky:

Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky

Does the G major scale in our scale book prepare us for this? No, and even a standard scale fingering is useless here.

        But, I hear you say, this is not really what we mean when we talk about practicing scales. True. The above example from Tchaikovsky’s ballet is a technical issue of another kind. I offer it here in order to stretch the imagination, in order to plant the notion that when we encounter a scale or an arpeggio in a piece of music, we should be prepared to first notice that it is a scale or arpeggio, or part thereof, and consider it on its own terms. Does the standard fingering work here? How can we efficiently negotiate its twists and turns? I promise you the scale in your piece will not proceed innocently from G to shining G with a prescribed fingering and no detours. At least, not very often.
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