I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.
First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!
Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.
Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.
Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!
Compose Some Music
Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!
Did I Mention Scales?
Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.
OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.
Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.
Have you been following our discussions about scales? We’ve looked at major scales, minor scales, the different kinds of minor scales, and the relationships between major and minor scales. I have one more kind of scale for you to learn – the chromatic scale.
First, A Quick Review
A basic major scale begins and ends on the same note.
A major scale always follows a certain pattern of whole
steps and half steps. Or some may refer to these as tones and semitones.
The pattern of the major scale determines its key signature – the sharps or flats required to make the notes fit the pattern.
There are three forms of minor scales: Natural Minor,
Melodic Minor, and Harmonic Minor
Natural minor scales always fit a certain pattern of whole
steps and half steps.
Descending: W-W-H-W-W-H-W (the reverse of the pattern
Melodic minor scales start with that same pattern but raise the 6th and 7th steps of the scale. So the pattern of a melodic minor scale going up would be W-H-W-W-W-W-H.
Descending (or going down) a melodic minor scale lowers the 6th and 7th steps back down and follows the same pattern as the natural minor: W-W-H-W-W-H-W.
Harmonic Minor scales start with the same form as the
natural minor but raise the 7th step of the scale. They keep that 7th
step raised on the way down the scale as well. This makes for an odd interval,
or step between the 7th and 8th steps of the scale. It
comes out to be a whole step plus a half step. (officially called an augmented
2nd) I noted it as W+H and underlined it. The pattern for a Harmonic
minor scale looks like this:
Read here for more information about the three forms of Minor Scales.
Major and Minor Scales are Related
Major and Minor scales are related in two possible ways. You
can have parallel major and minor scales, and you can have relative major and
Parallel major and minor scales have the same starting note.
C Major and C Minor are parallel scales. The note names throughout the scale
are the same, but the accidentals will be different.
Relative major and minor scales are related by key
signature. The two scales will have different starting notes, but they will
have the same key signatures. G Major and E Minor are relative scales. They
both have an F♯
in their key signatures.
Now we get to chromatic scales. “Chromatic” comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” A chromatic scale uses all the notes, or “colors” possible. Within one octave there are 12 half steps. In major or minor scales, we use 8 of those steps. A chromatic scale uses all 12 of the steps in an octave. Here is an example:
If you play this on a keyboard you will see that we used every note possible from C to the next C – all the white and black keys.
Also, notice that no letter name has been used more than
twice. If you look at the example given above, instead of writing C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F, we could use
C-D♭-D-D♯-E-F. The same
pitches would be represented on a keyboard, but it is written incorrectly. We
used “D” three times, but the rules say we can only use it twice. So we replace
the D♭ with C♯ and we have written the scale correctly.
Writing Chromatic Scales
When we write a chromatic scale on its own, the general rule
is to use sharps as we go up the scale and flats as we go down the scale. This
is the basic, simple approach. When a chromatic passage is used within a piece
of music, composers still tend to follow the basics of this approach, but they
also try to work with the key signature of the music.
A chromatic scale can start on any note. It is not “named”
like major and minor scales are. We might tell someone to play the scale of C
Major, and that person should know exactly what to play. When referring to
chromatic scales, however, we would tell someone to play a chromatic scale up
and down three octaves, starting on a C, or F, or whatever note we want.
Why Learn and Practice Chromatic Scales?
Make Learning Your Music Easier
We have said in the past that all music is based on scales,
in one way or another. So learning scales helps us to learn music. The same is true
for chromatic scales. Often music has passages (or sections) that are
chromatic. Knowing how to play the chromatic scale, starting on any note, will
help you play your music better.
Being able to recognize and play chromatic passages will
help you learn new music faster. Let’s say you are playing through a piece of
music and you get to a section that is a series of notes with lots of sharps
and flats. Instead of panicking about it, analyze the passage. Is it using only
half steps? If so, then you don’t need to “read” every note as you go through
the passage. Read the first note, the last note, and then mark that the passage
is chromatic between those two notes, and your fingers and brain should know automatically
what to do.
Practice all those Odd Fingerings
Let’s face it, how often do you have to play a G♭, or an A♯? Probably not very
often. But you can’t forget how to play them. So, practice your chromatic
scales. They will give you practice with every sharp and flat fingering there
is. Then, the next time some odd accidental shows up in your music you don’t
have to look up the fingering – you already know it!
Best Ways to Practice Chromatic Scales?
Pick a Note, Any Note
Play up and down one octave, using every half step within the octave. Then see if you can do two octaves. Be sure you use the correct fingerings for every note. When that becomes easy for you, start on a different note. And then a different note. Practice until you can start on any note and play one or two octaves of chromatics. Be sure you listen and pay attention while you play – always keep your brain engaged in what you are doing!
Check with your teacher about how to properly finger chromatic scales. The fingering can be a bit tricky, so learn it correctly. The basic rule is to always use the third finger on black keys. Only use the second finger when two white keys are right next to each other and use the first finger on all the other white keys. Here are a couple links to fingering chromatic scales on a keyboard.
You will definitely have to consult with your teacher for fingering advice. There are several methods and thoughts about fingering the chromatic scales on string instruments. Please learn to do it correctly so you don’t have to unlearn and relearn!
Now, Let’s Summarize:
Chromatic Scales –
Use all 12 half steps in any octave
Cannot use any letter name more than twice in one octave. (Except for first and last note)
Generally written with sharps ascending (going up) and flats descending (going down)
May use unique fingering patterns (especially keyboard and string players)
More music theory review? Yep! We need to do a bit more review before we move on to more theory concepts. Let’s review things related to scales and keys and key signatures.
Whole Steps and Half Steps
First of all, you need to remember what we learned about whole steps and half steps. Half steps move, either up or down, from one note to the very next closest note. That is usually from a black key on a keyboard to a white key, but not always. Sometimes moving from a white key to another white key makes a half step. Whole steps are made up of two half steps. In the example below half steps are marked in purple and whole steps are marked in green.
Sharp, Flat, and Natural Signs
Sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs move notes either a half step higher or lower than they are written. Flats signs lower a note by a half step. Sharp signs cause a note to be raised a half step. Natural signs eliminate what a sharp or flat sign previously did.
Major Scale Patterns
Then we talked about the pattern of a major scale. Remember, a major scale can start on any note, and goes in alphabetical order to the next note with the same name as the starting note (from an A to an A, or from a D to the next D). A major scale must always follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps. We use sharp and flat signs to adjust the notes to fit the pattern of whole and half steps. And every note of a major scale must have a different letter name (until you get to the top note of the scale, which is the same as the first note of the scale). The pattern is always:
The sharps and flats used to adjust the scale to the proper whole steps and half steps are used to create the key signature for that scale. Key signatures allow us to write music without including the sharp or flat signs for all the notes that need one. We write them once at the beginning, (in a specific pattern and order), and repeat them at the start of each new line of music. The sharps or flats in the key signature apply to all the notes of that name in the piece until something is written to change that.
Finding the Name of a Key from the Key Signature
We also looked at the order of the sharps and flats and how they are written into a key signature. We can look find the name of the scale used to write the music just by looking at the key signature. Then we say that we know the key the piece is written in. I showed you how we do that. Remember, we always read key signatures in order from left to right. Here is a link to the information we looked over earlier: Read Here