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A New Way of Learning Scales and Arpeggios


Learning and teaching improve when teachers have the tools and grasp the value of being learners in their own classroom.

Professor John MacBeath.

A year ago, I discovered Clean Language and have now completed the Clean Facilitator Programme with Marian Way. As a classroom/instrumental music teacher, I wondered how I could use a clean approach to motivate students to take more responsibility for the learning and practice of scales.

Scales and Arpeggios are:

  • The building blocks of musical development and technique
  • To be encouraged from day one, as part of a regular practice regime
  • Part of most exam syllabuses
  • A challenge to both teacher and student. Many teachers dictate how and which scales are to be learned, often using a circle of fifths rotation and by pass the diversity of preferred learning styles.
  • Of immeasurable benefit to overall musical competency.

I began by asking a Grade 1 (ABRSM) piano student, “And what needs to happen for you to practise your scales?” When I developed her response to this question, she created a metaphor of a 6-tiered cake, with the arpeggios on the bottom tier, and the major scales, minor scales, broken chords, contrary motion and chromatic scales going up to the top tier. She chooses which layers she wants to work on, and ticks boxes when the scales are memorised and correct on first play. A selection of scales are required in the exam, so occasionally, she cuts a slice of the cake to randomise her otherwise, more structured approach. This student had genuine difficulties with scale learning, and there has now been a marked improvement in her progress.

A Grade V piano student developed a metaphor based on, “Who wants to be a millionaire?” He is learning all the C scales etc. first, then the D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s, A’s, and B’s. Following that, the required flat and sharp keys for that Grade. He will ‘press’ a random generator to ensure that he can play a mixed selection.

A Grade IV student has assigned each scale to an article of clothing. She has a daily timetable with an outfit a day eg. Monday - necklace, T-shirt, gloves, sunglasses. This is a relatively random approach, but she can change the outfits each week and organise with more structure if she chooses.

Obviously I teach the necessary skills, articulation, tone, etc and check that students have got things in context and clearly understand the relationships between the scales etc. So the metaphors are more about their individual preferred methods of learning, practice and application of imparted knowledge. I am excited that students are discovering their unique ways of learning and the diversity fascinates me.

A really exciting moment occurred during a lesson with Alfie, a 9 year old piano student. I asked him to play a contrary motion scale in C major. When he arrived at right hand on E and left hand on A, he paused suddenly and was totally absorbed by the sound those two notes produced together. He became very animated and began to experiment and played the same two notes at higher and lower octaves. He eventually settled on A (first space bass clef and E, third space). I stood back, allowing him time to enter that particular sound world, then eventually asked, “What just happened?” He said, “It’s that sound.” I thought this would be a great opportunity to ask some clean questions… “What kind of sound, is that sound?” After a few developing questions, he went home and drew a picture of an emperor at the top of a staircase, arms out, exuding power and looking down on all his people.

The two notes he played (A and E) are the first (tonic) and the fifth (dominant!) note of a scale. He knew innately that a perfect 5th (the interval between those two notes, tonic to dominant) is very powerful and pivotal. Now, when he hears those two notes in any context, he recognises them immediately and says, “Oh, there’s the ‘Emperor’ sound, the perfect 5th.” This reinforced my long held belief that learning is “triggered and sustained by curiosity.”

We recently spent a weekend learning Clean Space and I couldn’t wait to try that out too. I worked with one GCSE student who is very bright and seemed to find learning easy. I was surprised when she wrote as her starting statement, “I don’t know how I learn.” To start with she appeared very frustrated, stressed and red faced. She kept saying, “I don’t know”, “I really just don’t know’. She called the first space, “I don’t know.” The next space she named ‘blank’. Then she found another space and suddenly said, “It’s working! …Oh, well, I can’t learn big chunks by reading and I am not very good with pictures. Oh, I like capital letters, key words and I like colour. I need colour.” In another space she realised that she needs to hear things as merely looking at them on a page doesn’t work for her. By the time we completed the session, she had discovered, in depth, how she learns and was visibly a lot more relaxed.

With increased focus on learning, I believe it is important to establish what effective learning looks like, before considering the implications for structuring and teaching lessons. The clean approach enables a pedagogy to be derived from a desire to facilitate learning rather than just produce good teaching. I am at the beginning of my clean journey and can’t wait to explore more with my students, using clean questions and principles, to empower them to tap into their individual potential and foster long-term, sustainable improvement through their insights. Students appreciate the fact that someone is really listening to them and giving them maximum attention. All said and done, ‘Music is a world within ourselves, it’s a language we all understand.’ It’s at our fingertips, let’s tune into it!

About Ruth Huckle

Ruth is a music teacher.

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