Scalerail - Simple, Effective, Fun!

For Students

Practice Advice and Help

If there was one single method of practising the piano that was guaranteed to give you perfect results in half the time, someone would be a millionaire - and the most famous piano teacher in history!

Unfortunately there isn't! We all learn in different ways, we all have our own experiences, backgrounds and abilities, and we all have our own preferred learning styles, methods that work best for us. We each have to try and find our own perfect method - and we can spend a lifetime doing this.

However, the news is not all bad! There as some TRUTHS about practice that apply to all of us, and can be found in all successful practice methods. These form a good basis on which to build your own practice habits. Start off by understanding these and you'll be well on your way to developing time-efficient and effective practice methods for yourself.


you make on the piano - everything else depends on this!

THINK before you PLAY

remember that each time you play something incorrectly - you're learning it that way!


look for key, scale patterns, chords, repetition, phrase structure, rhythmic patterns, form etc. The more you understand how the music is constructed the quicker you will learn it, and the better you will remember it.

BE your own TEACHER

get into the habit of figuring things out for yourself.


think of your piano practice as finding and solving problems in the pieces you are learning.

So, stop thinking of practice as playing something over and over again until it somehow comes right, the chances are it won't! You need to work smarter than that, so let's look at each of the above TRUTHS in a little more detail.

LISTEN to Every sound you make

this sounds like very obvious advice! But in reality most of us rarely listen properly to what we play on the piano. We need to judge the intensity and the length of every note, when it begins, how loud it is, and when it comes to an end. Each note has to be heard in the context of every other note, whether in a melody or as part of a chord, within the piece of music. In order to do this we have to know what we want, and then LISTEN to confirm whether this is what we are creating. So, our ears are used to measure whether the actual sounds we make conform to our mental image of what these sounds should be like. We then use our ears to ensure that what we are playing is what we think we are playing!

Any pianist who has used a tape recorder to listen to themselves play, and then exclaimed "I didn't know I sounded like that!" proves the point!

Of course, we need a good mental image of the sound we want to produce, an accurate blueprint of our intended performance. This relies on our own musicality, taste, knowledge of period and style etc and is one reason why the study of music beyond the piano keyboard is so important for the pianist. This knowledge grows with time and experience - but its importance cannot be over emphasised.

As we gain a deeper insight into the music we are playing our mental blueprint will change. It will become more subtle, more imaginative, better defined; new ideas will form in our minds, new ways of approaching a particular passage, phrase, or note, new ideas about tempo or dynamics. It is our ears that enable this changing image of the music to become a reality in piano sound.

This is where all piano practice begins!

THINK before you PLAY

Anyone who has ever done any DIY about the house will have come across the carpenters' motto "measure twice and cut once". Well, when we practice the piano the pianist's motto should be "think twice and play once".

There are many anecdotes that tell of someone listening outside a famous pianist's music room hoping to eavesdrop on a virtuoso performance, and only hearing a deafening silence! In the story the question is then usually asked, "What is the maestro doing in there?" And the reply is given: "Oh, you mustn't disturb the maestro, he's practising!" The story illustrates the point very well. Practicing is not about never ending mechanical repetition (although repetition in the right context is an essential part of practice). It always starts in the mind - and sometimes needs to remain in the mind for some time before it reaches the keyboard.

We also need to be aware that whatever we play - we learn! It therefore follows that we must ensure that anything we do play is exactly what we want to learn! This is why it is so important to work out fingering patterns before we start to practice. It can be very difficult to change fingering at a later stage - unlearning anything is a difficult mental task.


This is when you realise that those theory lessons, all that harmony and counterpoint, and a liberal amount of music history has not been wasted. A general knowledge of art, literature and architecture can be useful too! In short, in order to be a good interpreter of piano music you need to understand how the music you are playing was composed and the wider historical context of its composition.

Much of this knowledge and experience will be gained as you progress with your piano lessons, but don't forget to apply the things you have learned in your theory classes, listen to music regularly, and get into the habit of reading about music - maybe start with a basic history of western music (your teacher will recommend one for you, or check the list of helpful books below). You can then find books about the composers of the music you are currently studying and begin to explore their worlds. This knowledge can really help us to give deeper and more informed interpretations of the music we are learning.

Understanding how the music is constructed by analysing it also helps us to remember it. The map of the music becomes clearer and more defined in our minds. Begin by looking at the basic form or shape of the movement or piece, and then start to look at the music in more detail. Your teacher will help you with this at first, and it need not all be done at once! Analytical details can be added as your knowledge of the music becomes deeper. There are many good text books available to help you with your analysis, but in the first instance a teacher's help, knowledge and support is invaluable - ask your teacher to help you!

BE your own TEACHER

You might be thinking "why pay my teacher professional fees if I'm now expected to do their job for myself?" But in reality this is not how the learning process works! A good teacher is indispensable, but they should have the long - term goal of making themselves unnecessary. In other words they should be teaching you to function without them - and the sooner you begin to learn how to do this, by thinking for yourself, the better!

To start with, get into the habit of writing down the important learning points from your lesson. Your teacher may write things down in a note book or on your music, but you should make a note of what you want to remember too. Do this as soon after your lesson as you can.

Don't wait for your teacher to tell you everything to do - start figuring things out for yourself. Very often you will find that you can identify a problem and come up with the solution just as well as your teacher, so why wait? And if you get things wrong your teacher will be there to help and offer advice.

Soon you will begin to realise that we really teach ourselves to play the piano - with a little help from others!


Stop thinking of piano practice as putting in a certain amount of time, or repeating a piece or passage a certain number of times and start thinking of piano practice as finding and solving problems in your pieces.

There are THREE steps to this process:


the problem


the cause


the problem


This means knowing what the piece should sound like, and building a clear mental picture (the blueprint) of your ideal performance. You then need to start recognising the difference between the way you want it to sound and the way it does sound.

Each difference you identify is a PROBLEM to be solved. Remember that your mental blueprint will develop as you learn the piece and so new problems will come to light as your practice progresses - this is part of the learning process.

For example, you might achieve a "problem free" performance at a certain tempo. You may then change your ideal performance to a faster tempo - this then becomes your new blueprint. You now find that a certain leap with your left hand becomes hopelessly inaccurate at this faster tempo - so having identified a new problem we now have to find the cause and the solution. This becomes our practice.


This is where you often need to stop playing and start thinking! Take some time to do a little detective work. Remember, if you can't find out WHY something's going wrong you won't be able to come up with a SOLUTION to put it right.

Here are just some examples of things that can cause problems:

Poor fingering

The wrong hand position

Too much muscular tension

Some weak aspect of technique

Not thinking ahead

An unclear mental picture of the music


Some problems, for example the wrong hand position, can be solved almost instantly once they are correctly identified. Others, like poor fingering, might be more difficult to solve. Once a better fingering solution has been found the old fingering pattern has to be "un-learned" as the new one is made secure. (This is a good time to stress the importance of working out practical fingering right at the start of the learning process!)

Weak technique might need addressing with technical exercises to build finger independence, strength and co-ordination so that the passage can be negotiated fluently. Talk to your teacher about problems you have identified and solutions you have come up with. Sometimes you may not be able to find a solution by yourself - your teacher will help you, and should also be able assist you with fingering, exercises to use for different aspects of technique and how to practice them. The more experience you gain in the area of finding solutions the more focussed and effective your practice will become.

When we think of piano practice like this, in terms of problems and solutions, it gives our practice a new purpose. Instead of our goal being "an hourís practice" we find that we have practised for an hour in order to achieve our goal.

How do you know when you are getting close to the perfect performance?

Here are three questions to ask yourself to see how you're progressing on the road towards the perfect performance. Answer YES to each of them and you're probably going in the right direction.

Does it SOUND right?

Correct notes, accurate rhythm, the right dynamics and phrasing, a suitable tempo, the right articulation, a correct sense of style?

Does it FEEL right?

Do you feel comfortable when you play or do you feel excess tension in your hands, arms shoulders, neck, or elsewhere? Do your movements feel smooth and flowing or sharp and jerky? Are you aware of how your body feels at all - or have you blocked these feelings out altogether?

Does it LOOK right?

Can you see any evidence of excess tension? Does the choreography of your movements - hands, fingers, arms and body seem to match the needs of the passage you are playing?

Observing what you are doing is often very helpful in creating a greater awareness of your muscular sensations and feelings. These are often very subtle and your eyes can help you to tune in to how your body feels. A mirror or video camera can be very helpful, and your teacher will constantly observe your posture and how you use your body.

We need to remember that it is not just the sound we make that needs out attention - we need to pay attention to our bodies as well. It is possible to make a wonderful sound whilst misusing our body - but eventually this misuse will catch up with us and begin to cause physical problems. (SCALERAIL can help you to develop a technique based on freedom and relaxation when used to practise scales, arpeggios and other related exercises - consult the SCALERAIL Hand Book for detailed instructions).

It is a good idea to remember that playing the piano should not cause any form of physical pain, stiffness or discomfort. If you experience any of these symptoms when you play the piano you should talk to your teacher about it and find out what the cause is. It is important that these issues are addressed before they develop into serious, long - term problems.

Some Useful Practice Techniques

Practice short sections

When learning a piece divide it into small sections, learn each section and then combine sections together to make longer sections. Continue combining sections together until the whole piece or movement can be played through - this will probably be at a slow tempo at first.

It is important to make sure that your initial sections make musical sense - think in terms of phrases rather the bars or lines and keep them short. With a difficult piece the initial practice sections might be extremely short. With each section work out the fingering, counting etc and then, at a slow tempo, repeat it several times. If you make any mistakes the section is too long or your tempo is too fast. Adjust as necessary so that you can repeat the section several times without a mistake. Then try to play the section from memory. If you can't remember it at all, the section is too long, so cut it in half and repeat the process again.

As you learn a piece you will find that you are able to deal with larger and larger sections - but at first stick to sections that you can memorize after 7 - 10 repetitions.



THINK before you PLAY


BE your own TEACHER


This technique for learning new music works because you are dealing with sections that are small enough to be held in your short - term memory.

When this process is repeated over a period of time (for example seven times a day for five days) the long - term memory becomes stronger and stronger until a "permanent" memory is formed.

If the short-term memory is overloaded with sections that are too long for it to cope with the whole memory process is disrupted. Learning and memorising becomes much more difficult and much less secure.

By working in sections you are following a natural way to learn. You will learn faster and retain what you have memorised for longer. You are also able to find and fix problems before they become practised - in mistakes.

It is easier to attain perfection in a small section than in a whole piece or movement - but small sections when linked to other small sections soon become whole pieces or movements.

Practice hands separately

Take a section and learn each hand separately. This can be particularly useful when the music is complex. The left hand is unable to 'hide' behind the right hand - special attention will help to turn it from a weakness into a strength. The left hand can also be given more repetitions than the right hand (or the other way round if appropriate).

This technique is particularly useful when learning polyphonic music where each hand is working independently.

Insert 'stops'

This technique is useful for practising passages of running quavers (8th notes) or semi - quavers (16th notes). It works like this: imagine you had a bar with four groups of right hand semiquavers - you could stop on the first semi-quaver of each beat, then the second semi - quaver of each beat, then the third etc. Then two groups of semi - quavers can be joined together, then four groups.

A good way to practise using this method is to first stop on every beat. Do this until it is perfect. Then stop every two beats, then every four beats. Continue in this way until you are playing the whole section fluently.

This technique is most effective when used with running quaver and semi - quaver passage work, finger passages, or any passage where a regular rhythmic pattern is followed. Using this technique can sharpen up and focus the rhythm of a passage. It helps with memorising the notes accurately. It improves control and with repeated practise in this way passages can be played faster and more accurately.

Practise in 'finger groups'

This practise technique is similar to 'stops' but notes are grouped according to fingering patterns instead of rhythmic patterns. The 'stop' can be made at the end of a fingering group, or on the first note of the next group.

If we take the fingering of the C major scale as an example, these two alternatives would look like this:

1 2 3 STOP 1 2 3 4 STOP etc

1 2 3 1 STOP 2 3 4 1 STOP etc

When using this technique the 'stop' allows you time to evaluate, think and plan ahead. It helps you learn fingering patterns thoroughly, and helps with the process of memorising.


Play all the notes using a crisp, clear staccato touch. A metronome can be used when playing staccato and the tempo gradually increased over a number of practise sessions.

This technique helps to develop a clear, well articulated sound in finger passages. It also helps to develop an accurate sense of rhythm, and strengthens the fingers.

Playing staccato can be combined with 'stops' and 'finger groups' (see above).

Be careful to avoid arm and wrist tension when practising in this way.


Play a passage as quietly as you can. Concentrate on playing all notes very evenly. You can play slowly or up to tempo, legato or staccato, and using the 'stops' and 'finger groups'. Pianissimo practise helps develop evenness of touch and finger control.

Concentrating on playing quietly can lead to tension - often in the shoulders or back. Be very aware of this and relax tense muscles before tension takes hold.

As a further variant on this technique try playing on the surface of the keys without sounding the notes. Again, make sure your hands and arms, and especially your shoulders, neck and back are kept relaxed. This technique can help you to develop effective pianissimo playing, and sharpens the mental image you have of the music. It can also help to make you more aware of any habitual tension you may be carrying when you play, and allows you to consciously release this tension.


Play each note very loudly at a slow tempo. Use only for short passages and then immediately switch to another method - such as pianissimo. Fortissimo combines well with staccato touch, which can help develop rhythm and articulation.

Fortissimo practise helps build strength and endurance and can aid memory by providing a very strong stimulus. It can be used for any type of passage but is especially effective when used with finger passages.

DO NOT over use this technique! It is not a way to vent your frustration - and your piano certainly doesn't deserve such punishment! Always be aware of the condition of your fingers, hands, arms, shoulders and body when you are practising. Be aware of how you are producing your fortissimo tone.

STOP if you experience discomfort or pain. Playing the piano should not be uncomfortable or painful - you need to discuss this with your teacher if you experience either of these conditions when practising. By ignoring your body's warning signs you can cause permanent damage.

Use the metronome

Start with the metronome set at a fairly slow tempo. Play the passage you are working on with the metronome until you can play it perfectly accurately whilst staying exactly with the metronome's clicks. This may take a number of sessions. Then move the metronome up a notch and repeat the process. The aim is to eventually reach the tempo of your mental blueprint of your performance. As soon as a tempo increase causes a problem you need to identify the problem and find a solution to it before you can move on.

The metronome is an excellent tool and can help you to monitor your progress.

Remember - the worst thing you can do is to keep repeating a passage with the same mistakes in it. All you are doing is learning the mistakes! STOP - THINK - identify the problem and work out a practical solution. If you canít find a satisfactory solution yourself ask your teacher! This is proper piano practise!

Count out loud

The usefulness of this very basic practise method should not be underestimated.

Practise counting the sub - divisions of the beats as you play, as well as the main beats themselves.

Counting out loud helps to develop an accurate sense of rhythm. It helps to coordinate your hands with your brain. It helps you to learn and memorize complex rhythmic patterns. Linking your hands with your voice in this way can help you to develop a natural and flexible rhythm. Counting the larger beats can help you to find the natural rhythmic flow of the music.

Try counting silently as well as out loud.

Try using a syllable instead of numbers.

For example: TAH tah tah tah TAH tah tah tah TAH tah tah tah etc

This can be done out loud or silently during practise. It can even be used silently during a performance. This can help to make your rhythm more precise and your playing even. It can help to measure accelerandos and ritardandos. It can help to coordinate left and right hands accurately.

Work towards perfection

Pick out a passage from the piece you are working on. Try to play it three times in a row without a mistake. If you can do this try playing the passage five times without a mistake, then ten times. When you can do this you will feel that you have mastered the passage.

BUT there are different levels of perfection.

The first level might be perfectly accurate notes - but tempo might be slow and dynamics might all be at one level. You can gradually add elements to your perfect performance. The final list might include accurate notes, correct tempo, tone, phrasing, dynamics, balance, pedalling, etc.

A good plan is to work on just one section at a time, gradually adding new elements to it. Eventually sections can be joined together, slowly building up the perfect performance. You could make a chart showing all the sections in your piece and keep a record of your progress.

When using the 'working towards perfection' method you are getting used to playing a passage perfectly right from the start - and this is much easier to do than to fix problems later on. It also gives you a very clear goal in your practice. It makes you far more aware of your mistakes, and so you are more inclined to correct them. It also improves your ability to listen to yourself - which we know is so important.

Always be aware of physical tension when you practise for perfection. If you can play a passage perfectly, but with incredible physical tension you've trained yourself to play with something that you do not want - incredible tension. You now have to unlearn the wrong way of playing (with physical tension) and re-learn the right way (with minimal tension).

Practise without the pedal

Practise a passage that is usually played with the pedal without using the pedal. Your finger work will not be masked by the effect of the pedal, and you have a good opportunity to re-examine how you are pedalling the passage. Make yourself aware of the exact effect the pedal is having, listen carefully, and pedal with calculated intent not just out of habit. Make sure that it is good pedalling patterns that become habitual, not sloppy ill-thought out ones.

Record yourself

Keep a recording of all your best performances, and performances in the making. Hear how your mental blueprint differs from the sounds that you actually produce. This experience can be invaluable. Recordings made over a period of time can help you and your teacher to assess your progress and development. Listen back to a piece that was recorded 'in progress' and decide what you need to do to improve the performance. You can give yourself a lesson for free!

Recording yourself is also a good way of practising giving a performance. The microphone adds a certain amount of pressure (as does an audience) and you can monitor your reactions under these circumstances and work at keeping calm and focussed.

Silent visualisation

Take a piece you have memorised. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing it at the piano. Make the performance as vivid as possible in all its detail. Feel the weight of the keys, and all the physical sensations of playing. This involves a great deal concentration! You can start off by:

Visualising one hand at a time

Visualising a short passage at a time

Looking at the music as you visualise the performance

Visualisation helps to establish a clear mental image of the music and improves your memory. Mentally practising the music allows your hands to rest and your body to relax completely. This relaxed state can then be carried over into a physical performance.

Add variety

Remember that the main part of your body you are training when practising the piano is not the fingers, hands, or arms, but the BRAIN. Practise needs to be a creative time rather than one of dull, predictable routines. Try to use as many different techniques as you can. This will keep your mind focussed on the job for longer and you will retain more of what you have learned.

Practising in a variety of ways builds and strengthens your memory. It helps you to perform well under different, and maybe unfamiliar, conditions on a strange instrument. You are not relying on a set of reflexes developed under one set of conditions, conditions that are unlikely to be reproduced during a public performance, but reflexes developed under a variety of different conditions.


Like any of the other practice technique SCALERAIL is a tool to help you get the most out of your practice time; but first you need to understand where and how SCALERAIL can help you.

SCALERAIL is designed to help you practise SCALES, ARPEGGIOS and other related technical exercises. It can also help you with passage work based on scales and arpeggios.

The principle is simple - when playing scales and arpeggios the movement of the hand and arm must be linear. As the arm is extended towards the top or bottom of the keyboard SCALERAIL maintains the optimum forward-facing position of the hand and wrist in relation to the keyboard. The thumb stays in the same horizontal plane and the fingers extend to play the black keys, rather than the whole hand moving forwards. The elbows no longer fly outwards when the thumb is used.

With regular use SCALERAIL will promote a "physical memory" of the correct relationship between the arm, wrist, hand and fingers at the keyboard when practising scales, arpeggios and other technical related exercises.

Scales and arpeggios form the basis of good piano technique and it is essential that every student learns how to play them correctly. Only by using the correct technique will you be able to play brilliant scales and arpeggios. SCALERAIL can help you to quickly master the correct technique and lead you towards the brilliancy of execution that you want.

You can use SCALERAIL to practise:


Chromatic scales


Broken Chords

Five-finger exercises

Octaves and broken octaves

Sixths and broken sixths

Use SCALERAIL with your teacher's supervision to start with. It can be hard for you to judge if your position at the keyboard with SCALERAIL is the best one for you. Your teacher will be able to observe you and make any adjustment to your position that is necessary.

SCALERAIL can be used to practise specific types of passage work from pieces you are studying:

Passage work that is based on scalic patterns

Passage work that is based on arpeggio or broken chord figurations

Your teacher will be able to advise you if you are not sure whether a passage is suitable to practise with SCALERAIL or not.

The SCALERAIL Handbook contains lots of help and advice for practising with SCALERAIL which will help you to gain maximum benefit from its use.

Don't forget to plan

Even if the plan is in your head, you need to know what you want to achieve before you start practising. If you don't know what you want to achieve you will not know if you have achieved it!

It can be a good discipline to write down your practise plan for a day or even a week. Set out your goals and how you intend to meet them, but donít be afraid to adjust your plan as you work through it.

You could even try writing a longer term plan, maybe discussing this with your teacher. What would you like to achieve in the next year? What aspects of your technique do you want to develop? What music do you want to learn? What performances do you want to give?

Thinking long-term like this can add focus and meaning to your work.

Be prepared to work

However we dress up learning to play the piano as a relaxing, fun activity suitable for people of all ages and abilities, there comes a time when we realise that if we want to make progress we must settle down to hard, difficult, no-fun, repetitive, WORK!

A good part of a pianist's talent must be the talent to deal with this work in a systematic, relaxed but focussed way.


And finally - some useful books for your library!

This list is not exhaustive and in no particular order, but all these books have much to teach us and are well worth investigating.

Freedom in Piano Technique

Joan Last

Hammond Textbooks

Piano Technique

Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer


The Simplicity of Piano Technique

York Bowen

Stainer & Bell

The Art of Practising the Piano

Jeffrey Whitton

Stainer & Bell

Men,Women and Pianos - A social History

Arthur Loesser


Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing

Josef Lhevinne


The Pianist's Problems: A Modern Approach to Practice and Musicianly Performance

William S Newman

Da Capo Paperback

The Literature of the Piano: A Guide for Amateur and Student

Ernest Hutcheson


A Handbook of Musical Knowledge

James Murray Brown

Trinity College London

The Art of Practising

Madeline Bruser

Crown Publications

We Piano Teachers

Victor Booth


The Young Pianist: An Approach for Teachers and Students

Joan Last


The Art of Piano Playing

Heinrich Neuhaus

Kahn and Averill

Piano Notes: The Hidden World of the Pianist

Charles Rosen


The Great Pianists

Harold C Shonberg

Simon and Schuster

A History of Western Music

Donald J Grout

W W Norton & Co

Great Pianists on Piano Playing

James Francis Cooke