It can be hard to get piano students excited about playing scales. They can be messy, confusing and complicated. But, once they start making sense, most piano students take off with their piano playing. Sight reading skills, technique, understanding of music theory and many more musical skills all start coming together when students master scales.
As a piano teacher, playing scales can get pretty routine and repetitive. The way my own brain is wired to understand scales doesn’t always match up with how my students need to learn.
I’m always on the hunt for ways to make more interesting and memorable for my students.
When I was a student, my teachers always taught me scales by rote. I’ve searched for good comprehensive scale books for my students, but I’ve never found one I love that I use for everyone. Instead, I keep my studio stocked with several helpful teaching aids to help all kinds of learners master scales.
Here are some teaching aids that I keep in my studio to help my students excel at learning scales.
Scale blocks are my very favorite tool for teaching scales. It makes it super easy for students to catch on to the patterns that make up the circle of fifths,
I had a well-loved set of homemade blocks that I used for years, but I recently got this beautiful magnetic set from Laura at e-znotes.com. It feels really luxurious compared to my old, falling-apart set! I love the magnets that hold the blocks together and the smooth surfaces are so much nicer than my old Mod-Podged blocks.
If you’ve never watched scale blocks in action, check out this video to see how you can teach students a pattern and within minutes they’ll understand how to spell every sharp major scale.
For sharp keys, when the blocks are lined up in order based on a C scale, count 5 blocks (a la circle of fifths). From that fifth block, move the remaining blocks to the front. Flip the last block over to make it a sharp.
Continue the pattern over and over and you’ll quickly make it through all 7 sharp key scales.
There are similar patterns for flat major scales as well as minor scales.
Scale blocks are available right here in the Pianissimo Store. They’ll be the best money you spend all year for your studio! They come in a nice wooden box with a slide-on lid and include instructions on how to teach patterns for all major and minor scales.
I was playing Connect Four with my son recently and I was noticing that the game board would making an interesting teaching aid for scales.
The seven columns of the game board match up nicely with the 7 keys in diatonic scales.
Tetrachords and pentascales also fit nicely onto the game board.
I got busy searching for Connect 4 game pieces and found a way to create stickers to go on the pieces. Here’s what I came up with:
It’s a relatively new addition to my studio, but we’ve already discovered tons of great applications for it.
For students learning scales and key signatures, we use it to spell out scales. We just drop the pieces across the board in the order of certain scales. Sometimes, I’ll fill the first column with a variety of keys and the student has to complete each row.
In the picture below, you can see how we used it to create a scale then identify notes in the primary triads.
My younger students have been using it to spell chromatic scales by dropping in every chromatic note in order. We usually do a round of ascending notes with sharps, then empty the board and descend with flats.
I usually lean towards teaching scales by rote, but sometimes my students need a good visual help them sort out which keys to play. The E-Z Note scale cards are another staple in my studio.
The cards are color-coded, orange for major keys, gray for minor keys. The five-finger scale cards pictured above have several helpful reference cards that group in scales by similar black key/white key patterns. They use a symbol system of “-” for white keys and “^” for black keys, which is a super helpful quick visual for students.
The full octave scale cards also have these helpful reference cards.
The front of the card shows the key and the back of the card has a notated scale with sharps or flats highlighted.
This set also uses orange for major keys and gray for minor keys.
The reference cards are one of the best parts about these flash cards because they give students a really quick snapshot of patterns, groups, fingerings, etc.
The individual scale cards are an easy way to drill different keys or isolate problems.
There is a set for 5-finger scale and full octave scale cards are available as a bundle in the Pianissimo Store.
Scale Picture Workbooks
I love these scale picture work books! They present a really unique approach to learning scales that matches up really well with the kinesthetic side of scales.
Each scale is represented by a picture of a common image such as a car or a dog.
The object is drawn in a way to show the topography of flat white keys verses the taller black keys on a piano keyboard. The pictures titles match the name of the key. For example, as you can see below, the eyeglasses demonstrate the key of E-flat major.
It’s a really clever book and students are always amused matching up each picture with it’s scale.
I mentioned earlier that I haven’t found a scale book that I love to use universally with all of my students, but there are a few that I keep handy for the right students.
I find Alfred’s The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios and Cadences to be a very comprehensive resource. It makes a great reference. I like that it includes the circle of fifths, simple fingering charts and detailed pages for each scale. It also dedicates several pages to explanations on music theory to show students how the different components of scales and chords are formed.
On the other hand, I like Bastien’s Scales, Chords and Arpeggios because of it’s simplicity. I pull it out for some students who are first learning 1 octaves scales. The pages are uncluttered and straightforward. Each page features to major scale on the left and the relative minor on the right. I do wish each scale page would use accidentals instead of a key signature, but it’s easy to have the student circle or highlight the sharps and flats as they are learning them.
Another series that I keep around are the Alfred Daily Warm Ups. Like the Bastien book, I like the simplicity and layout of each page and students respond well to them. They are thinner booklets and there’s a separate book for major and minor pentascales, 1 octave scales, and 2 octave scales. The pages of these books are also pretty simple but I like that they include a visual of the scales on the keyboard
Teachers, I’d love to hear how you keep scales, fresh, exciting and engaging for you students. What other tricks and tools do you have up your sleeve?
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Heidi Neal says
I love your idea about using connect 4 for scales! I’m always on the lookout at the thrift store for games I can repurpose for piano. I picked up connect 4 at the thrift store and considered using it for some type of chord game but I’m thinking a race to build scales would be a great lesson starter! A few other games my students enjoy are Grand Staff Sorry Sliders, Piano Candyland and Split Second (used to review theory/music symbols at group lessons. How did you get the letter stickers? I love how you created them in black and white to make the black key notes more obvious!
I made the stickers using my printer and Cricut machine. But, I bet 1 inch round stickers would fit on the checker pieces too. We play piano Candyland too! Tell me about Sorry Sliders and Split Second! I haven’t heard of those 2!