Learning the Chromatic Scale... A Two-Tier Approach
Updated: Feb 2
As a pianist who teaches using the ABRSM syllabus, along with its technical requirements, I'm a great believer in laying good foundations for secure and confident piano technique. What was it Hans von Bulow once said? "There are three things a pianist requires: Technique... Technique... And more Technique!"... Or something like that.
But I'm also a great believer that technique can be achieved in fun, creative, musical ways. So here's a blog post about the method I've been developing for teaching chromatic scales. Enjoy!
The problem with chromatic scales is...
That the poor student looks at the keyboard and, in their early stages of study, simply sees a blur of black and white keys. The endless drudgery of memorising the correct fingering doesn't help. Many students are still working towards a confident level of note-finding. So the principal challenge is to give the chromatic scale meaning, definition, and shape. To learn it not numerically, but to learn it topographically, and to develop a feel for its landscape.
I prepare the student for two octaves of the chromatic scale by establishing landmarks. Where are the places, visually and tactually, that the student might anchor their position in the scale? So my first preparatory exercise, taken in the right hand, looks like this:
This forms a neat and handy visual structure that is easily digested and memorised: the two white keys followed by a black key always take a 3-finger pattern. The student can explore these patterns by playing up and down the keyboard, and although the basic exercise should be geared towards covering a two-octave register, the student can also use this little pattern to explore the full range of the keyboard – something they all too rarely have the opportunity to do.
The same process should follow in the left hand. No unnecessary stretching, no excess tension. It should just be a case of lifting the arm and moving the hand into the new 3-finger position, feeling the notes as they take shape under the hand, and then playing them in a variety of patterns.
Once this structure of the 'two white key, one black key' 3-finger pattern is established, it's a case of understanding that we now need to 'fill in' the steps between these groups. To help the student achieve this understanding, I use an exercise called 'Raindrops', in which they explore the two-note couplets that will form the padding between the 1-2-3 groups. This padding includes 3 white and 3 black keys – like raindrops falling in a puddle, the exercise uses an acciaccatura to play from a white to black key (never miss an opportunity to demonstrate a musical idea or device in practice!), using fingers 1 and 3.
This creative approach to chromatic scales through discovery of the keyboard and its possibilities is enriching and inspiring for the young pianist. They learn to unearth the secrets of the instrument, and in doing so feel like they are connecting with and mastering the piano. The first two stages can now be styled into any number of improvised exercises, which the student can invent for themselves. Here are a couple of ideas...
There are other advantages to this approach. For example, rather than learning the chromatic scale as an unending sequence of digits to be memorised, the student can also apply the grouped fingerings to passages in their music – they've added the 1-3, white-to-black, and 1-2-3, white-white-black, patterns to their arsenal of fingerings. The student should have learnt to see the chromatic scale as a series of groups, not a series of notes, and will always be able to navigate this sequence successfully, wherever they begin the chromatic scale.
With this understanding under their belt, and assuming the process has also been replicated for the left hand, the student can now proceed to the chromatic scale proper. The chromatic scale holds the power to demonstrate the perfect symmetry of the pianoforte if the first experience of the scale is outward contrary motion, beginning with thumbs on middle D:
The brackets show the 1-2-3 group. The contrary motion approach again reveals its superiority as an aid to learning, because the 1-2-3 group now falls in the same position for both hands as they play. The 4th finger also now acts as a convenient close to the scale. In similar fashion to regular diatonic scales, if we want to replicate the chromatic scale at the octave, the pattern is simply repeated and the 4th finger closes the end of the second octave instead of the first. Naturally, the descending pattern follows on from one or two octaves of this ascending version.
With the foundations laid, the house may now be built. The various starting positions prescribed in the technical requirements of the syllabus are understood as permutations of the same universal scale, simply commencing on different notes and at different intervals. Most importantly, for the student, they learn that it isn't necessary to study a multitude of different chromatic scales at every grade, but simply to practise one master scale and apply it in different contexts, exploring its different possibilities. Retaining the master scale as a regular component of warmups keeps the keyboard shapes of the chromatic scale 'in the fingers' and makes it available for deployment whenever the demands of an upcoming graded exam call for it.
This exercise can easily be taught to a good average student in 10 minutes spread across a couple of lessons. It assumes, of course, that the student uses the exercise in their private study and puts it into practice.
I love making life easy for my students. Learning the piano should be fun. Yes, hard work is required, and buckets of patience! But certainly breaking down technical requirements into manageable, creative tasks is a fulfilling and rewarding part of teaching. Happy playing!