Important Rules to Follow When Practicing Scales

As the student learns scales and progresses through the lessons, it is of vital importance especially during the early stages of Grades 1-2 that the student and teacher be aware of several general rules. The following list summarizes the most important concepts to be aware of and look out and listen for when progressing through the lessons in the early grades:

  • Always keep the fingernails well-trimmed and short – Playing with correctly curved fingers is impossible with fingernails that are too long. Long fingernails cause the first joint of the finger to collapse. Keeping the fingernails trimmed may be inconvenient to those who prefer long fingernails, but it really is the only way to ensure proper finger positions. (See Fig. 1)
  • Never collapse the first joint of the fingers, but always keep the joints strong and rounded – One of the main reasons for collapsing the first joint of the fingers is that the fingernails are too long. However, if the fingernails are trimmed and one still collapses the joints, extra precaution needs to be taken to correct this position. (See Figs. 2-3) 
  • Never collapse the knuckle area of the hand, but always keep the knuckles protruding slightly upwards – The great pianist-teacher John Browning explains that “Russian School” teachers like Rosina Lhévinne placed great emphasis on keeping the knuckles of the hand rather high, which the Russian School refers to as the “dome” of the hand. (Watch video here.) This type of position creates strength and stability. On the other hand, collapsing the knuckles creates weakness and instability. Students should take extra precaution to avoid collapsing the knuckles, but instead, always play with a strong hand position (See Figs. 4-5)  
  • Never play with a flat thumb, but always try to tilt the thumb at about a 20-degree angle – The thumb functions as the anchor of the hand. If the thumb is positioned improperly, then the wrist and all other fingers will automatically be in less-than-ideal or improper positions. On the other hand, a properly positioned thumb will automatically create the most optimal positions for the wrist and other four fingers. 99% of all beginners play with flat thumbs (especially young children), which needs to be avoided and corrected in the early stages of learning (See Figs. 6-8)
  • Never play with a flat fifth finger, but always try to play it on the fleshy part of the fingertip – Just as 99% of beginners play with flat thumbs, 99% of beginners also tend to play with flat fifth fingers. On the other hand, the fifth finger should not be too curved either, but optimally positioned just a little more curved than totally straight. (See Figs. 9-11) 
  • Never play with a sunken wrist, but always try to keep the wrist straight or curved slightly upwards – The previous rule of keeping the thumb at about a 20-degree angle automatically solves the wrist problem, as it is impossible to have a sunken wrist if the thumb is tilted at an angle. Playing with a flat thumb, which is so commonplace among beginners, causes the wrist to sink downwards. This needs to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, avoid playing with a wrist that is too high and curved. The optimal position for the wrist is between the two extremes of flat and too high, which is achieved by tilting the thumb upwards at about a 20-degree angle (See Figs. 12-13)
  • Never play the thumbs at the end of the white keys, but instead, always play them approximately midway between the end of the white keys and beginning of the black keys – Playing the thumbs at the end of the white keys, as if almost falling off the keyboard, is one of the biggest problems committed not only by beginners but by all pianists. Playing the thumbs at the end of white keys makes reaching the black keys difficult when needed and creates huge problems with economy of motion. Beginners often play the thumbs at the end of white keys presumably because they have some sort of fear of the black keys and, at least subliminally, they position their thumbs and other four fingers as far away from the black keys as possible. This is fine if all one plays is white keys, but when black keys must be played this approach backfires. There is no need to fear black keys. Notice that when the thumb and other four fingers are positioned further up the white keys and closer to the black keys, that it is much easier and more efficient reaching a black key when needed. (See Figs. 14-15)
  • Never hold the thumbs past the end of the white keys, but always try to hold them over the keyboard – Hanging the thumbs off and away from the keyboard is a common problem with beginners, which is easily corrected by simply sliding the other four fingers up more on the white keys. The reason this thumb position is bad is that it positions the thumbs at least 4-5 inches (10-12 centimeters) away from the black keys, and thus, disables the thumbs from playing black keys if needed. The only way to ensure the thumbs being positioned over the keyboard is to hold the elbows near the body or torso, since outward elbows automatically positions the thumbs away from the keyboard and black keys while inward elbows automatically positions the thumbs correctly over the keyboard and closer to the black keys. John Browning addresses this issue in the same video referenced above and explains how Josef Lhévinne advocated practicing with the elbows holding books in order to train them to be held close to the torso. (Watch video here.)
  • Never play the thumb or fifth finger on black keys – This rule applies only to the traditional fingerings for the major and minor scales as practiced as exercises, but not necessarily to real musical examples. The traditional fingerings for the major and minor scales have been developed (over the past 200 years or so) to avoid fingers 1 and 5 on black keys. The reason for this is that fingers 1 and 5 are the shortest fingers and the black keys are the shortest keys, which automatically makes it inconvenient to reach 1 and 5 to play black keys. Conversely, it is much more natural and convenient to play fingers 2-3-4 on black keys since these are the longest fingers. Of course, this rule does not apply to real musical examples, but it could be said as a rule that 1 and 5 should be avoided on black keys perhaps 60-70% of the time. The old-school piano teachers of yesteryear would often say “never play the thumbs on black keys” which is an exaggeration despite it having some kernel of truth. In the case that 1 or 5 must play black keys, then the previous fingers should be played in the black key region to enable 1 or 5 to properly reach the black keys without having to lunge forward so far. (See Figs. 16-19)
  • Never overlap the playing of two or more keys, but release each previous key at the same time as playing each new key – The overlapping of keys is a common problem among beginners, which some teachers refer to as the “lazy finger” technique. The best way to avoid this is to consciously lift each finger higher than it needs to be lifted, that is, exaggerate the lifting motions. This exaggerated lifting motion makes it impossible to hold down the keys longer than they should be held, which automatically eliminates the overlapping of keys. (See Figs. 20-23)     


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