Scales! Ugh!

The thing I dreaded most about piano lessons.

To me, this repetitive exercise of running my fingers up the keyboard and then down again was a boring waste of time. This was not really making music. It irritated and annoyed me. I didn’t buy into the promise that this “powerful skill work” would actually help me with everything else I attempted on those ivory keys.

Luckily, my piano teacher must have understood balance. Because, although every lesson and every practice was to start with a warm-up of scales work, the biggest chunk of time was spent developing my skills in the context of real pieces of music.

As simplistic as they were, I can still remember the thrill of learning to read those first little pieces. Whether I was plunking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Ode to Joy” the satisfaction of hearing those tiny black notes translated to the sound of music was what motivated me and kept me at the piano. The skill work was just that – WORK. It brought me no joy. But the songs were completely different. They not only engaged my fingers and my mind, but my heart.

My mother loved the piano too, often bringing the house alive with her playing. This music drew me in like a magnet. From “Jingle Bells” to Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” to “Rock of Ages” I loved to stand by her side and sing along. “Sweet Violets” was our favorite. It made us laugh with anticipation every time. These songs and their stories connected and delighted us. I dreamt of someday being able to fill a house with musical magic in the very same way. 

To master the piano, I would eventually need to master the scales. My fingers would need to learn to move up and down the keys, adjusting smoothly and efficiently. But my savvy teacher understood that I didn’t need to fully master the scales before moving onto the songs.

By selecting text that gave me the right opportunities for practice she set me up to apply the fancy finger work of scales “on the run” while doing the real work of music making. By selecting a text that I would love and care about, she motivated me to focus on skills, like fluent fingering, authentically – to make the most of my song.  It was those magical pieces of real music – not scales, or scolding, or daily practice requirements, or pressure to catch my brother by “moving up the levels” – that kept me coming back to my spot on the piano bench. Real pieces of music allowed me to see myself as a real musician.

I worry that sometimes our small group work is more like excessive scales practice than a balanced piano lesson. I worry that the kids who are least interested in “reading lessons” in the first place, are asked to spend way too much time practicing, and repeating, and refingering their scales, instead of getting onto the powerful work of making music with whole texts that will draw them in and lift them up.

I understand the temptation to get stuck on skill work. We feel the pressure to “clean up skills” or “fill holes”.  But our students will quickly disengage from their dreams of becoming readers, if we linger too long in the scale work before putting texts in their hands. To keep coming back to reading, they need to keep hearing themselves make beautiful music as readers.

The scales matter.  I know they do.  I know the automaticity and muscle memory that a pianist needs to succeed are supported by the dull and unsexy work of practicing scales, just as learning to read is supported by things like efficient recall of letter-sound associations, recognizing known word parts (like prefixes or suffixes), or instantly identifying high frequency words. But when we practice skills in isolation, without providing immediate opportunities for transfer to authentic and engaging text, we miss the boat. We miss that important link to application “on the run”.  We miss the opportunity for meaning making (the ultimate purpose of reading).  And, maybe most importantly, we risk our students walking away from the piano, with the false idea that this tedious “scale work” is what reading must be mostly about for them.

My wish for all readers, especially the most vulnerable and unsure, is that in every small group lesson their teachers will carefully balance just a “smidgen” of scale work with a whole lot of opportunity to make music with rich and wonderful texts.

Let’s promise each other we’ll keep texts worth reading at the heart of all of our instruction.

For more support with small group instruction check out my book, Simple Starts: Making the Move to a Reader-Centered Classroom. 2015. Heinemann Publishing. 


You may also want to explore:

Small Group Instruction: More than a Level and a Kidney Table

Keeping Small Groups Small

Three Questions Every Reading Teacher Should be Asking 

Kids Fall In Love with Reading by Falling In Love with Books

The More Kids Read the Better they Become at Reading

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