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I've been practicing scales for some time now, and I found them mostly easy and fun to play. The problems begin when I have to play them faster, but oddly enough my problem manifests only when playing towards the thumb, that is descending scales in the right hand and ascending scales in the left.

Take for instance F major in the right hand. I start with my thumb on the F, and as soon as the 2nd finger hits the G, I start raising my hand ever so little, so by the time the 4th finger reaches B flat, the thumb is raised in the air and closely following the playing finger, ready to quickly drop on the C from the next group. The same thing happens when transitioning from E to F in the next octave, and I can play the scale comfortably and quickly.

The problem is on the descend. Starting from the 4th finger on the F, as I get closer to the thumb on C, my hand seems to want to stay immobile, and when I get to C, I have to to this weird sweeping movement to get my 4th finger onto the B flat. Admittedly, the distance when transitioning from the thumb on F to the 3rd finger on E is not as large, but the problem is also noticeable and it prevents me from playing the descend as fast as the ascend.

I noticed there's a lot of flame wars with people arguing over "the best" way of playing scales, most of which has to to with "thumb-over" and "not-thumb-over". There are also a lot of YT videos where people try to "teach" you the best (in their opinion) way of playing scales. Most of them can't really play the scales that well to begin with. It's tough to filter out all this crap, especially since I've had no formal piano education and I've no idea what is plain established. Could someone clarify how people in regular, good music schools are taught to play the scales on the descend? A video would be useful also. Thanks a lot!

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2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

It sounds to me like you're trying to play with your arm perpendicular to the piano and/or with your wrist parallel. That works fine when you're tucking your thumb under (e.g., RH ascending) but not when going over the thumb (e.g., RH descending). This is because your thumb naturally moves sideways like this, but your fingers are more limited and mostly only move up and down. Your thumb can tuck itself under your hand but fingers 3 and 4 cannot reach all the way over the thumb, and you have to contort your hand or do other gymnastics to make it work.

To prevent that, push your elbows out a little so that your arms are at about 60° to the piano, rather than 90°. Notice that with your fingers held loosely they now all (excepting the thumb) rest at approximately the same spot on the keys. When your arm was perpendicular to the piano your middle finger would have been further into the keyboard than your pinky, for example, since obviously your fingers aren't the same length.

Angling like this allows you to play more smoothly since your fingers are all in that nice line, and it also helps mitigate the problem you describe. When on an angle your fingers are no longer reaching directly sideways and you can take advantage of their ability to reach forward.

I don't have access to a piano or keyboard at the moment so I can't make you a video. However, for an example of what not to do, take a look at this video around 1:35. He plays C Major and you can see that, since he's playing in the center of the keyboard, his elbow is out further than his hand (good) but he's compensating by bending his wrist (bad!) and thus keeping his hands straight to the piano (bad). Your wrists should be mostly unbent and you want your hand to meet the keyboard on the angle I described.

Here's a handy (crappy) illustration!

bad illustration

Note that when playing higher up or lower down on the keyboard, you may need to bend your wrists a bit in order to play without moving around on the bench. That's OK, just don't overdo it.

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It took me a while to understand, but this was actually dead-on. :O When I sat at the piano, I figured it'd take me a while to relearn to play the scales to accomodate the new hand position, but actually I just had to keep in mind to keep the hands angled, and I just played, with speed and comfort. Forever indebted to you. :) –  neuviemeporte Sep 22 '11 at 22:40
    
@neuviemeporte Glad to hear it! –  Matthew Read Sep 22 '11 at 22:47
    
One more thing to keep in mind as you go through four octaves is to work to keep your shoulders parallel to the keys. Don't lean from the waist as you go up or own, rather roll onto one leg or the other (left going down, right going up) while keeping the opposite shoulder down. If you're doing it right, you should feel like you're doing a "side crunch" on the side opposite the direction you are going. –  BobRodes Mar 26 at 15:34

Matt's is an excellent answer. One idea behind it is to economize on lateral wrist movement.

Interestingly, I had the opposite problem when studying scales. I found that passing the thumb under the fingers was more difficult, as I had developed the habit of raising the fingers rather high when playing notes. It stands to reason that this makes it difficult to play a note with the thumb while the hand is on top of it, so I also developed the habit of rotating the arm outwards slightly to get the hand out of the way when playing the thumb notes.

Needless to say, my scales were pretty uneven, and it was frustrating to see that going down was harder than going up without really knowing why. (The problem was in the left hand going down, and in the right hand going up--nearly everything is harder in the left hand!) However, I buckled down, studied my hand position for a while and realized that I needed to learn to play without raising my fingers so high.

Once I worked on that for a while, the problem began to resolve itself. My thumb is kind of short as well and my hands are pretty wide, so passing the thumb under is always something I have to work on. By the time I got out of college, I could play all my scales at 144, and several of them (Db is my favorite) at 160. So keep at it, remove little mistakes as you find them, and you will improve.

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