Music Techniques

Scales Help at

[February 5, 2013 update: is no more. Instead, check out this article on on the "10 Jazz Scales You Should Know"] I stumbled upon this site while trying to makes heads or tails out of the Lydian Dominant mode (jazz musicians are probably shaking their heads at this as they know very well what Lydian Dominant is). is a very thorough site, containing scale formulas, chord analyses, note names and audio clips of everything from our standard major and minor scales to the Bebop Dominant and Hindu scales.

My student R, who likes to compose, is excited about writing in some of these different keys while my student A is currently on a modal kick with her repertoire, so she is pumped about learning how to play modes. The funny thing is, neither student is in Conservatory Canada's Contemporary Idioms syllabus. Both girls are in the traditional stream of ConCan and RCM respectively.

As for my students who need to learn the Lydian Dominant mode for their Contemporary Idioms exam, they're just relieved to have the scale formula in an easy to understand format (as am I).

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Adding Passion to your Technique

Today, my student L came to her piano lesson a little on the grumpy side. Blame it on her homework and group projects. We tried something today that was rather fun - we added a bit of passion to her technical exercises. Image Source: . Licensed for commercial use.

We focussed on two keys today - G major and its minor cousin E minor. We wound up staying in E minor since it sounds angrier. I asked her to play me some Angry Scales, Stressed Out Triads and Frantic Arpeggios. She was rather convincing in conveying her emotions of the day. The way she made her triads zigzag really sounded like a stressed out person running in one direction and rapidly turning to run the other way. Ditto for her arpeggios.

After venting her frustrations" through her technique, L's rendition of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was sufficiently tender, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was perfectly boogie-ish, while Beethoven's "Ecossaise was positively perky.

Now I'm willing to bet that if I had her start with Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, it would have sounded like someone yelling.

I tried the same tactic with a few more students tonight to great success as I had quite a few students stressed out from homework. I think I'm going to give it a try with my own technical exercises.

At the end of L's lesson, I wished her well with her school projects and expressed my hope that within a few days, she'll be able to practice some Happy Scales, Excited Triads and Lazy Arpeggios.

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.


On Injuries and Piano Practice

Source: Licensed for commercial use.One of my students showed up with a swollen finger last week. C injured it during a non-musical activity and after several days, the swelling was increasing. I demanded that she go see a doctor to get that finger checked out. C injured the middle finger of her left hand, which has presented us with the challenge of how to structure practices and lessons. It will take some time for her hand to heal but she can't take time off from practicing if she is to take her exam in the spring.

I have decided to zoom in on her weak spots. On Monday, I attended a workshop by the Royal Conservatory of Music, unveiling their new technical requirements. Some ideas were new while some I needed the refresher on.

C, like the rest of my students will be drilling their scales, chords and arpeggios at least five times per practice; playing them differently each time. Here are some of the variations:

  • play legato
  • play staccato
  • play portato
  • vary the dynamics
  • add a crescendo while ascending and diminuendo when descending
  • vary the rhythm (straight eighths, jazz triplets, even triplets, dotted half note followed by a quarter note)
  • vary the accents (accent beat one the first time, beat two the second, etc.)
  • play a repeated note scale (C-C-C D-D-D E-E-E)
  • play one octave as quarter notes, two octaves as eighth notes, three octaves as triplets and four octaves as sixteenth notes
  • play chords up the scale

In C's case, she'll have to just practice her right hand and rest her left. With these exercises, it's imperative to use proper fingering.

Tonight, we focused on phrase shaping, continuation notes and right hand rhythms. Next week, we'll tap practice the left hand rhythms.

C is using this opportunity to work harder on her ear training and theory.

The following are informative articles/discussions on dealing with piano-related injuries:







Please feel free to share your tips on injury prevention or dealing with injuries.

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Why We Should Practice Scales, Chords and Arpeggios

A few of my students detest their technical exercises. In fact, I have a few students who really need to pull up their socks in this area if they're going to pass their piano exam next month. I hated them too. With a passion. That hatred was reflected in my poor technical skills mark on piano exams.

Since then, I've learned to like them. Elinor Lawson, my piano instructor at university, assigned me some songs from Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm by Béla Bartok. In it, I found several passages where chords progressed up in a scale (e.g. B chord, C chord, D chord, etc.). I started looking at music harmonically - from the chord progressions to how a melody would be stated in one key and then reappear in a closely related key. I learned that looking for patterns like this made memorizing easier.

In Chopin's Nocturne in e minor, op. 72 no. 1, which I'm currently working on, there are virtuosic scale passages that I've spent many an hour on.

As a listener at a concert, I've heard jazz and classical musicians play scale passages that move in parallel, contrary and zigzag motion.

As a teacher, I see chords, arpeggios and scales in my students' songs.

Scales, chords and arpeggios are often called the building blocks of music as I've illustrated above. They also are exercises in motor dexterity and strength. Those tricky passages in the Nocturne demand technical precision. The dramatic effect is lost if I stumble my way to the top.

It comes down to this: it doesn't matter how expressive a musician is, if he or she is weak technically, he or she can't convey the music convincingly. It's like trying to read an essay or a resume that's riddled with grammatical and typographical errors.

Here are a few more articles on the importance of practicing technique:

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Music Theory Musings: A Practical Example

Sometimes, students ask, “Why do I need to take music theory?” The simple answer is, “It makes you a better musician.” With theoretical knowledge of the music, one is able to better learn and understand their repertoire, resulting in stronger performances.

I’ll use a practical example: Two of my students are working on a Bourée this year, which is a lively French dance popular in the Baroque period. One is learning the Bourée in A minor by Johann Ludwig Krebs while the other is working on a Bourée in F Major from Georg Philipp Telemann’s Solo in F Major, TWV 32:4.

At the beginning of the school year, we discussed the form of the music. Both are in binary form (rounded binary to be more specific). That makes learning simpler, knowing that the A section returns with some or no modifications. Both begin on an upbeat, which encourages the performer to give a nice strong accent to beat one in the following bar. They should be in duple meterbut strangely, they’re both in quadruple meter. Lively dance in quadruple meter? Past experience suggests that they play with a feeling of one beat per bar.

The first section begins in the tonic key but ends in a decisive perfect (V-I) cadence in a contrasting, closely related key (either the Dominant or the relative major)

The B section in both dances are based on a short motive from the A section. After some sequences, the music returns to the A section (or in the case of the second dance, a portion of A). Both songs end in a decisive perfect cadence in the tonic key.

My students learned their Bourées, one section at a time. They are currently busy bees, trying to memorize their songs for the upcoming APTA Festival. The memorization process has been easier because they recognize the form and the cadences (the usual trouble spots). However, both are struggling with the sequential patterns.

Theoretically, sequences should be easy to memorize but sometimes, it takes a while to internalize the pattern, as my students are finding. You learn the original pattern and then transpose it up a step or down a step, as marked in the score. I am now trying to get them to memorize the chords, e.g. C goes to F, D goes to G, E goes to A, etc. I just realized that should have told one student that this pattern is a series V-I chords, with the pattern moving up a step (C – D – E or F, G, A, depending on which chord you focus on). Maybe that will help.

© 2006, Musespeak™,Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Friday Fun Link #6

I stumbled upon A Passion for Jazz when I was searching for a good “How to use a Fake Book” recourse. There is a concise history of jazz as well as handy “cheat sheets”. The chord chart is extremely helpful! Here’s the site:


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