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Technical Exercises

Technical exercises do not teach technique. But they can be a good opportunity to practice good technique and they have many more benefits in terms of theory and opportunities for creativity.

Scales

Scales are important because they allow students to navigate the building blocks of music. A student who thoroughly knows their scales will find key signatures, fingering and chord analysis so much easier than one who doesn’t.

Scales do not have to be dry or dull. Include improvisation using scales and vary your scale drills to keep things fun for your student.

Pentascales

Pentascales (AKA five-finger scales) are not to be confused with pentatonic scales. 

  • The major pentatonic scale uses only the notes do re mi so la (1st, 2nd, 3rd 5th and 6th notes from a major scale) and is a scale that many folk and pop songs are based on.
  • The major pentascale is the first five notes of a major scale, do re mi fa so, and is mostly used by piano teachers.

Whether you choose to teach pentascales to your students is a decision you will need to come to over time. I personally only use them with younger students and have them perform them non-legato to further reinforce the use of arm weight in the beginning stages. 

Major Scales

It’s important to teach your students the full set of 12 major scales as early as is feasible so that they develop an awareness of all 12 keys and learn to navigate them. Try to avoid the trap of teaching only to an exam syllabus or method book and instead make your own decisions about when your student is ready for scales and how quickly they can progress through them. 

Some will fly through all 12 keys if given the chance. Others may not be ready for any scales until their third or fourth year of study if they have not mastered playing legato without tension. Scales will further reinforce whatever habits your student has in the rest of their playing, good or bad.

Minor Scales

The natural minor scales are not often taught as scales in their own right, but I recommend teaching the natural minor in each key first before progressing to the harmonic or melodic minor scale. This way, your student will see the direct relationship between the major and minor scale (the minor simply starts and finishes on la instead of do) rather than trying to memorise another set of 12 keys separately from the majors. 

Scale Patterns

Scales can be played in many patterns and permutations. Avoid staying too long with hands separate scales as your student will become embedded in this way of playing and may be reluctant to tackle the challenge of playing hands together later on. 

At most, students should play the C major scale hands separately for a couple of weeks before putting the hands together – starting with contrary motion and then progressing to similar motion. If you don’t think your student will be able to coordinate playing hands together with some help and coaching from you, they may not be ready for scales yet and would be better waiting rather than struggling through.

Chords

Many teachers teach chords in a similar way to scales. They have certain patterns and sequences which they like students to know. 

Chord drills, however, are more varied than scales. Certain exam syllabi include them, others do not. Some do them as part of particular scale patterns, others as separate exercises.

What I believe is far more important than the exact chord exercises your students play (even if that’s none at all) is their understanding of chords. They should be able to connect the dots between the chord work they are doing and their repertoire and, too often, this is left out. 

Arpeggios

Although the way pianists practice arpeggios is more standardised and often lumped in with scales, I have put them under the Chords topic here. 

Arpeggios are really just a particular broken chord pattern. They are a very useful one, for sure. But too often they are divorced from their chord origins and taught purely as a drill. They can be so much more than that. 

When you teach arpeggios to your students, make sure to connect them to the pieces they are learning. Have them find the arpeggio patterns in their pieces and then play the piece with the blocked chord instead (and vice versa) so they can experience these connections. 

Lead Sheets

Lead sheets provide the perfect opportunity to make chords relevant to your students and build their understanding of some of the common broken chord patterns.

A lead sheet is a type of sheet music which has the treble clef melody and chord symbols. 

A well-rounded piano curriculum should include at least a taste of lead-sheet playing. Your students should be comfortable creating a simple arrangement from a lead sheet. 

Not only will this provide you with great material for increasing their understanding of chords but it will also open your student up to more opportunities to make music. Lead sheets are commonly used in jazz, pop and church music, and knowing how to navigate them will mean your student can jam with other musicians more easily. 

Etudes

While I do believe that you should teach your students scales, chords and arpeggios, I think etudes are very much a matter of personal preference. 

Dozen a Day, Czerny, Hanon and the like can all make great technique teaching fodder. If they end up suiting your teaching style, then great! 

They are not essential, though. Technique can be taught equally well (or equally poorly) through students’ repertoire if they are learning enough of it and it is varied enough. 

I recommend you get to know a few of the most common sets of technical exercises and experiment with them. They’re definitely good to keep in your back pocket for certain students at least and you may find you like to use them more often than that.

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