Why You Must be Able to Play Your Scales on Auto-Pilot

Piano Lessons / music theory / Why You Must be Able to Play Your Scales on Auto-Pilot

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s subject is about why you must be able to play your scales on auto-pilot. What does this mean? I’ve talked before about motor memory or tactile memory being a dangerous thing to rely upon in your piano playing. You can take a wrong turn here or there if your mind isn’t cognizant of where you are in a composition. With repeats, expositions, developments, changes of keys, you must have an intellectual awareness of your music. Otherwise, you can end up in the wrong place in the middle of a piece! But, you absolutely must be able to play your scales with just motor memory because of the fingering crossings.

All major and minor scales involve finger crossings.

Scales encompass thumb crossings in the right hand going up and in the left hand coming down. And you have third and fourth finger crossings in the left hand going up and in the right hand coming down. All major scales and minor scales have the same basic premise of third and fourth finger crossings in one hand going up, the other hand coming down, and thumb crossings in one hand going up and the other hand coming down. That’s a whole lot of stuff to remember! That’s why in the early years of study, rather than working on scales which have complicated fingering to learn, it’s better to develop the strength of your fingers first by playing early Hanon exercises which avoid finger crossings.. The whole idea of practicing scales is to develop fluid notes in a row so that you can play beautiful streams of notes with evenness and clarity.

What if you can’t get the fingering?

As I mentioned, I love to start students with the very first exercises in Hanon, which have myriad different patterns, but none of them involve finger crossings. So, you get to work out your fingers developing strength, fluidity, and speed, without worrying about the complexity of finger crossings. But why do they have to be on automatic pilot? When you’re playing a fast scale, there just isn’t time to think of all of those fingerings! You have to be able to just do it without thinking about the actual fingering. Then you can focus on the sound, the expression, the volume, the evenness, and the clarity without thinking about fingering.

I made a video a few weeks ago on how playing the piano is like learning how to walk. At the beginning, it’s a struggle. If you’ve ever watched a toddler taking their first steps, the concentration on their faces is unbelievable as they figure out how to traverse one step to the next. We don’t have to think about walking, because we walk on auto-pilot. Imagine if every time you took a step you had to think about everything involved, the coordination, the foot muscles, the leg muscles, and keeping your body upright. It would be almost impossible to do anything while walking! Yet, we walk and talk about all sorts of things all the time and don’t even think about it. That’s exactly what you must do with your scales. How do you get to that point? Well, first of all, you should only start scales when you have enough strength in your fingers. If you’re just starting out learning scales an octave or two octaves, it’s really not that valuable.

You want to play all your scales in four octaves right from the get-go.

Even though the fingering is the same, when you’re playing in the low register, the angle of your arms is quite different from playing in the high register. You must get used to playing the whole keyboard. If you’re not up for that challenge yet, you’re better off doing 5 or10 Hanon exercises first to prepare yourself for practicing scales. This is a great way to get your fingers strong and to develop fluidity. Start with one note to the beat at 60 to the metronome, so you can really see how your fingers are working, then two notes to the beat, and then finally, four notes to the beat. Work on these Hanon exercises until you can play them in a fluid manner with strength and evenness. Then you are ready to embark upon scales. You should work on your scales in exactly the same way. Work on them in four octaves, just like in Hanon: 60 Selected Studies For The Virtuoso Pianist. This book is like the Bible of scales and arpeggios because it has all the standard fingering that 99% of pianists utilize. I highly recommend getting a copy. Get to the point where you can play your scales without thinking about fingering. Then when you have scale passages in music, you don’t have to start practicing like it’s a fresh thing. It’s already there, literally at your fingertips!

That’s the lesson for today. Get your scales on automatic pilot, on motor memory, on tactile feel, so you don’t have to think about the fingering. If any of you touch type as I do, you know that you don’t even have to think about where your fingers are going. Those of you who have to hunt and peck, you know it’s a little slower, a little bit harder, but you can get pretty fluid at it. But when you know where the keys are without even thinking about it, it makes it so much easier. You want your scales to be that easy as well!

Thanks again for joining me! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.


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