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  • Writer's pictureMary Barton

Practice one -it's like practicing them all!

Bowling ball striking all 1-

One of the most exciting aspects of learning to play an instrument is when, after working hard to master one level of study, you are ready to advance to the next. New repertoire, new sounds, deeper musical  complexity, all require new or deepening skills to play. This is why mastering technical skills such as scales, chords and arpeggios is so important, and why each new level increases the scope and difficulty of technical skills required, such as in the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) curriculum, for example.

At the introductory levels, technical skills focus on pentascales, also called five-finger scales, one-octave scales and simple chords. These exercises are designed primarily to help the student develop good physical approach at the piano and to develop finger independence and control.

In the elementary levels, such as the RCM’s Levels 1 to 4, technical requirements build from hands separate playing to hands together in various elements, increase in speed, and gradually introduce new skills or more difficult versions of already learned elements. 

Additionally, the number of requirements increases. For example, at Levels 1 to 3, there are up 24 different technical components (12 different scales plus 6 triads played 2 different ways). In Level 4, it jumps to 33 items — 12 scales, 7 chords played 2 ways, and 7 arpeggios.) Level 5, there's 49, Level 6, 64 and it just keeps climbing! By the time you get to Level 8, there are over 100 items to master!

This might seem overwhelming, but these skills build upon each other and once you master playing one scale, chord or arpeggio, learning a new one is relatively easy. Plus, the bulk of these items can be organized into patterns and practiced in groups, which streamlines the process of mastering each item and goes a long way to lightening the load! 

For example, of the 30 different major and minor key signatures, almost all their corresponding tonic triads, arpeggios and 4-note chords fall into one of four patterns:

  1. All white keys (can’t get any simpler than that!)

  2. Middle black key (white, black, white)

  3. Middle white key (black, white, black)

  4. All black keys (simple, but harder to keep the fingers on!)

For example, the following triads, arpeggios and 4-note chords are all played on the white keys:

  • C major

  • D minor

  • E minor

  • F major

  • G major

  • A minor

And if that weren’t simple enough, their parallel major or minor cousins are all played with a middle black key:

  • C minor

  • D major

  • E major

  • F minor

  • G minor

  • A major

I always instruct my students to practice these in groups. Don’t just practice the C major triad by itself - practice all the other white-key triads in your level at the same time, in the same practice session, because when you practice one, it’s like practicing them all! They reinforce each other and the muscle memory is reinforced when you practice them all at once. The same is true for the other patterned groups.

The exceptions to these 4 patterns actually form a 5th group:

5. Opposites

There are 2 sets of opposites:

  • B flat major — black key, 2 white keys

  • B minor — 2 white keys, black key


  • B major/C flat major - white, 2 black

  • B flat minor/A sharp minor - 2 black, white

As well, the diminished 7th chords and arpeggios at Levels 5 and up can be broken into patterns, and some of the dominant 7th as well. Even some scales can be broken into groups! For example, major scales that contain all 5 black keys — B major (C flat major), F sharp major (G flat major), C sharp major (D flat major).

Breaking technical elements down into patterns not only prevents students from being overwhelmed, but when practiced in groups, also contributes to a sense of accomplishing a lot in less time! Because when you practice one, it’s like practicing them all!


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