I get asked this question a lot, and I always reply with the same answer – very!
Scales might not be the most exciting things to play, but they are extremely important when it comes to learning the piano, and is something I always teach during my piano lessons. No matter what style you want to learn and play, the scales will help get you there.
It could be argued that there are many great players out there that didn’t bother practicing the scales, and weren’t classically trained, but this is a very rare occurrence and the other 99% of us out there will not find it so easy.
I was classically trained, but I now spend a lot of my time playing blues and boogie woogie. However, if I hadn’t have been classically trained and spent all those hours practicing the scales, then I know that I wouldn’t be able to play these styles as good as I can. Now I’m no Jools Holland, but I can certainly keep up with the best of them and play fairly well. So I’m happy with the level that I’m at, and all of the hard work I put in over the years practicing my scales and learning classical pieces has paid off for what I now want to play.
Most instruments require good dexterity in the fingers in order to play them well, and none more so than the piano. In fact, if you want to play the piano well then you are going to need more than good dexterity, and most likely excellent to exceptional. If you already have a natural dexterity then you are already halfway there, and this will give you a huge advantage when learning to play the piano.
As you begin to learn the piano you will very quickly notice that your hands and fingers may ache from time to time – especially if you practice a lot. And the reason for this is that playing the piano can be very tough on the hands and fingers, and they need to continue to get stronger and more flexible to allow you to progress onto more difficult pieces. So by practicing the scales you are effectively training your hands and fingers to get to that point much quicker. Again, it is possible to achieve a great dexterity without playing the scales, but it could take a lot longer and a lot more practice. If you imagine an athlete training for an event or competition, then you can appreciate that without this training he/she doesn’t stand much of a chance. And this could be easily compared to learning the piano. You have to put the hard work in and train those fingers; otherwise you may have an almost impossible task, and certainly be limited by what you can play.
I saw a good example of this when I was stood in a music shop a few years ago. I was killing time waiting for someone, so I decided to sit and play a little on one of the pianos. As I was playing I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye taking a keen interest in what I was playing – which would have most likely been blues or boogie woogie. After a few minutes he came over and told me he’d always wanted to play boogie woogie. He sat down next to me on another piano and asked me to show him a few things. So I explained about the left hand and also showed him a few right hand melodies. This guy was struggling to play what I was showing him and I could tell his hands weren’t very strong or quick. I asked him how long he’d been playing for and he said about 10 years on and off. He told me he was self taught and he liked to play a lot of jazz. I asked him to show me a few things, and he was a really good jazz player and certainly knew his way around the keys. However, he’d gotten into the habit of playing mainly chords. He asked me how I was able to play single notes so fast, as this was something he struggled with; so I explained how I’d been classically trained and spent hours playing the scales. He immediately acknowledged this and was frustrated at himself for not spending the time to practice this himself.
He most likely has still never practiced the scales to this day, because if you don’t hit them early, then you will probably never find the energy to practice them.
So whether you are a beginner, or if you’ve been playing the piano for years; crack open that scales book and get playing them ASAP. You’ll certainly thank me for it later…