Friday, December 5, 2008

Why I don't do scales

In and amongst working on I Due Fiumi, I am also starting Alfred's Book Two (II). Sort of. Truth is, I broke open II about two weeks ago or so, and in 30 minutes, I was able to play the very first piece. It was very easy, probably about as easy as some of the pieces in the middle of Book One (I). I understand that the difficulty ramps up quickly in II. Those who have gone before me point out that, on average, it takes about twice as long to make it through II as it does I. For me, that would mean Book Three (um, III) would be about a year and a half away. Seems like a long time.

It is clear to me that II has a lot to offer. I also understand that there are very useful things for a new piano student to learn from it. Some of those lessons will make it easy for me to learn to play very interesting music. And yet, I have not even begun the second piece. Why?

Simple. I Due Fiumi is more fun. More interesting. Sounds better. I don't have hours and hours each day to spend on the piano.* When choosing what to do with that limited time, of course I'll choose to work on the more rewarding piece of music.

* - This is not exactly true, of course. I do have hours of unscheduled time I could be spending on the piano. I simply choose to sleep during those hours instead. Priorities.

Mind you, the Alfred's Method Books are not composed of mindless, numbing exercises. Those are out there, of course. Hanon exercises, scales, arpeggios... those are things generations of piano teachers have foisted upon their students, saying basically "These are good for you. I learned the piano this way. You will learn the piano this way." Alfred's tries to teach those same lessons using actual pieces of music. Yes, some of these traditional exercises are mixed in here and there, but the point of the method is to make music. And yet... and yet... I apparently don't find it compelling enough to set aside I Due Fiumi (or whatever I attempt next).

So the question I ask myself (and any of you, if you care to venture an opinion) is this: am I harming my growth as a piano player by not doing scales, arpeggios, and traditional piano exercises? Am I trying to run before I walk? Or is there long-term technical benefit to doing what I am doing? That is, am I still learning whatever it is that I am supposed to learn from traditional exercises?

I've posed this question to fellow beginners and intermediates at pianoworld. Will let you know what insights I get from that.


Anonymous said...

Some people will say that you only have to worry about scales, arpeggios and the like, if you want to play mostly Classical repertoire. And, certainly, those are the building blocks of much of that type of music, and you use them a lot. However, my teacher has pointed out that a lot of the New Age type music I (and lots of other people) enjoy playing has much of that type of stuff, as well. I can't speak for Einuadi- he doesn't appeal to me like some others. So, yeah, I do scales and arps, and a bit of Hanon. Not aggressively or anything like that. 5 minutes of scales and arps as a warm-up when I sit down at the piano, and Hanon when I can. Still on the first page of Hanon, so it isn't a huge priority. But then when I run into a scale passage in a piece of music, I often don't have to stop and "teach" my fingers how to play it- they already know.

As for the method books- yeah, a lot of it isn't as much fun as something more "real." But I think the value there is in kind of gently leading you through the accumulation of technique, rather than trying to jam 3 or 4 new things in at the same time, when you hit them in an outside piece. I can tell you honestly that there were a lot of things in both the Alred's books I've used/am using that were NEVER polished. If I didn't really care for the piece, we'd just work it enough for me to "get" the technique or whatever that piece was teaching and then we'd drop it. No one ever said you have to make them all perfect. I know some people prefer to do that. If that's what works for them, great. I know that if I don't like a piece, I am not going to give it the work it deserves. I see the value of working on it to learn what needs learning, but I (and my teacher) have no problem dropping it then.

After all that (whew!), as always, YMMV. If you try working on scales and find even a couple minutes just makes you feel hateful and angry, then, by all means, don't do 'em! I kind of find them somehow fun as a warmup- not difficult, not a whole lot of mental work, and it gets the fingers moving. And it does feel good when I can play a new one, fast and even, without looking at the book.

pdxknitterati said...

I don't do scales, either. But a lot of the rep I was playing included scales in them (think Clementi sonatinas), so I didn't feel like I was missing out. Also, as an adult student, I was lacking on time, so I wanted to get to the good stuff!


ral said...

Let me second 2ndsoprano: just do a warm up -- a couple of minutes, maybe only 1 or two runs through 3 or 4 octaves. Definitely don't do something you hate -- you'll only learn to be miserable.

For me scales and arpeggios have helped in a variety of ways, both technically and as an introduction to music theory. Week by week I cycle through the circle of 5ths (first week C, next G (1 sharp), next D (2 sharps) and so on). Then do flats. Then minors (Am = relative minor of C, Em relative of G, etc.). There are lots of possible variations (different rhythms, contrary motion, 2 against 3, LH forte RH piano, the list is probably endless -- you may want a teacher to guide you).

I'm just telling you what my teacher has done for me. Now after years my fingers "know" where to go (most of the time, anyway :-). Practicing scales makes it easier to analyze and reproduce music I've heard but not seen and to recognize written key signatures quickly.

Use a good book of scales and arpeggios to get the right fingering -- the one I have is Alfred's "the Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences", ISBN 0-7390-0368-2.