During my first ten years studying classical piano, the scales that I played were hands together, parallel. But the only literature that actually has scales in both hands, for more than one bar per page, is quite advanced and non-solo: Brahms piano trios, Beethoven piano concertos, and maybe some simpler Mendelssohn piano duets. But nothing that a kid would play in a recital.

If the point of drilling things like scales is to prepare the student for the solo keyboard literature from Bach through Liszt, then why not one hand at a time, as scales actually occur? Learning one hand at a time has many advantages, which I won't belabor.

On the other, ahem, hand, if the more important goal is hand independence, then why not drill right hand C major in triplets against left hand F sharp minor in sixteenths starting five notes late? Or at least against an Alberti bass, as in the Mozart sonatas?

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There are a few reasons that I found these technical drills helpful as a piano player:

  1. They help practice playing the hands together clearly and cleanly. Young piano players often play both hands "together," but the articulations between the hands are not actually in sync. As such, the result is one of constant flam and grace-note relationships between the two hands. Playing scales (or any technique) with both hands together (especially in octaves) makes it very clear to the performer when the hands are and are not exactly together.

  2. They practice balance between the hands. Young piano players often inadvertently play one hand more loudly than the other. Practicing scales with both hands together helps teach the young performer about balance. Similarly, it gives them an opportunity to practice bringing one hand out above another if they so desire.

  3. Lastly, the practical reason: it saves time. Why waste time playing hands apart when you can do both hands at once? Of course you can only play one hand if you're focusing on some particular technical aspect, but otherwise, there's too much music in the world and not enough time; do your scales with both hands together and get to music more quickly!

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    Another nice little exercise is playing with both hands, but not together, instead, l,r,l,r,l,r, going up scales note by note, if that makes sense. Helps timing and independence. – Tim Sep 18 at 7:02
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    Another advantage is that it's relatively obvious what it should sound like when done right. You mention the grace-note relationships between the hands. You could easily come up with other drills which help with this, but it wouldn't be quite as obvious when done properly. – Cort Ammon Sep 18 at 16:44
  • Efficiency is the answer! – Sweet_Cherry Sep 18 at 21:32

It's true that not a lot of music has parallel scales for extended runs. But a lot of methods involve playing things that never show up in real music, so that's entirely normal. The point of these exercises isn't to practice something that you will use directly in real music, but to develop a skill more generally.

On the other, ahem, hand, if the more important goal is hand independence, then why not drill right hand C major in triplets against left hand F sharp minor in sixteenths starting five notes late?

"Hand independence" is a bit of a misnomer. The goal isn't to have two hands that can do two completely different things, the goal is to be able to use both hands to achieve one idea, even if their contributions are different. With scales, you're using different fingers in each hand at the same time, and crosses happen at different times. Very different activities that need to be coordinated precisely. As Richard points out, scales in octaves make it painfully clear when there's imperfect timing.

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    I agree. "Hand independence" isn't really a thing. It's really about finger independence. And that happens in both hands at the same time. Again, the finger crossing while playing scales (and arpeggios) hands together gives opportunity to practice some of that. – Heather S. Sep 18 at 2:38

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