Piano scales - correct speed?

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Firefox1701
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Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Firefox1701 » 12 Nov 2011, 13:04

I've been trying to find out what are considered the 'correct' speeds at which to play piano scales to a standard that would be accepted by the Associated Board grading system in the UK ( I understand, obviously, that the speed would vary according to what grade you were being assessed for ). This is kind of two questions in one, I guess, but: firstly, can anyone tell me whether the speed at which you would be expected to play any given scale would vary according to the relative difficulty of the scale - i.e. ( taking extreme examples ) would you, for instance, be expected to play any given version of C major faster than any given version of, say, B flat harmonic minor?

My second question is: all the guidelines I've come across list speeds such as, for example, [ crotchet ] = 60, or [ crotchet ] = 88 ( where I've put [ crotchet ] there would be an actual crotchet - I just don't know how to do one of those in this message box!! ). Unless I've got this completely wrong, this means a speed of 60 ( or 88 or whatever ) crotchet beats per minute. However, the Associated Board Green Book ( and to my knowledge, most other standardised manuals of this type ) show the scales in semiquavers. By this reckoning, a speed of [ crotchet ] = 60, given that there are four semiquavers to a crotchet, would mean a speed of 240 actual notes per minute - and that's for the simpler scales, even at Grade 1!! This clearly can't be right, but I don't know what part of the equation I'm misunderstanding. As a matter of interest ( while I'm at it!! ) I'm also not sure why some speeds are listed as [ crotchet ] = so-and-so, and some are listed as [ minim ] = so-and-so ...?

As another matter of interest, as an entirely-self-taught player, I've learned scales by setting my computer software to produce a speed ramp of 150 up to 180 beats per minute ( as in, actual notes played ) over the space of 50 repetitions ( i.e. two octaves up and down being a single repetition ), and in the absence of any information to the contrary, I take it that I've 'learned' a scale properly when I can play three consecutive sets of 50 repetitions ( about 4 minutes 40 seconds each ) pretty much note-perfect and reasonably smoothly and evenly. Any comments on the validity of this method would also be gratefully received.

Thanks in anticipation.

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Gill the Piano » 12 Nov 2011, 17:52

To put it simply, the AB guidance is 'as fast as you can, as slow as you must'! Metronome speeds are a moveable feast if you ask me - hardly any two teachers agree. What does your teacher say? Ultimately, you need on-the-spot professional advice. The examiner would rather hear a steady clean scale with good gradation of tone and control than a pyrotechnic 90 mph performance which is not really controlled. Colin or Marky will give you a teacher's perspective on this - I'm just an interested onlooker!
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by markymark » 12 Nov 2011, 18:06

Trinity College (now Trinity Guildhall) used to state a minimum speed in the handbook if I remember rightly. I realise that you are using AB but still, I'd be surprised that a board this is normally "crochety" about a lot of other issues to do with their examination requirements hasn't also specified at least a minimum speed.

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Colin Nicholson » 12 Nov 2011, 18:10

The Associated Board scales tempo (eg Grade 1 - blue book) are taken at a crotchet beat per minutes - notated in quavers. (Ignore the semiquavers book). This is the slowest speed you can take them in an exam.... however, you would only get a pass mark or just above. As a general rule, I usually get my pupils to increase the speed by approx 20 - 30 bpm .... so for Grade 1 scales, approx. 80 -90 bpm. Remember also that all major, minor and contrary motion scales should be at the same speed - regardless if its A harmonic minor or B flat harmonic minor. Remember that metronomes are a guide only - and the tempo will depend on your ability.

Sometimes metronome markings are expressed as a minim beat - for example in pieces of music in 2/2 (alla breve) time. Similarly to scales - there should be a feeling of "8 quavers per pulse".... and a gradual crescendo. Not easy to explain here on the forum, but hope that helps. Not such a good idea to use a 'quaver beat' - as this tends to create a lack of uniformity/ evenness and occasional accentuation between fingers.

I am not sure about your PC thesis, and I dont think there is a specific time limit for scales. In most cases though, the metronome's notation will usually match the context of the exercise.

Just out of interest, what graded scales are you playing?
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Firefox1701 » 12 Nov 2011, 20:13

For the benefit of anyone who has the patience and inclination to indulge me, I should perhaps explain the back-story in order to clarify my situation.

I first started playing keyboards - by which I mean the electronic organ - at the age of about fourteen. I played keyboards ( primarily organ, a little primitive synth ) in various bands till I was about twenty-seven; this was during the seventies. I got married, settled down with a family, and didn't really touch a keyboard for about sixteen years. In 1998 I got the bug again, and this time could afford to buy a load of stuff that I could only dream of during the seventies. I went out and bought three synths, an organ and an electric piano, and shortly afterward, became part of a band for about the next four years ( i.e. till early 2002 ).

When I'd first started playing, I was inspired primarily by the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Being a callow youth, I crassly thought that by learning a couple of ELP's well-known pieces, I would effectively become the next Keith Emerson. It was only many years later that I realised the folly of this mindset. However, although I'd never had a lesson in my life, I'd like to think I held my end up musically for the duration of my time with bands both in the seventies and more recently. That said, in 2001 I decided that it was about time I had myself evaluated by someone who was qualified to give an opinion on my abilities such as they were, and to tell me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. I spent two hours with a piano teacher ( to date, the only time I've ever spent with a piano teacher ) who did exactly as I'd asked - pointed out my good and bad points and showed me where and why I'd been making mistakes. At the end of the meeting, I asked him, if there was a single piece of advice that you'd give me on the strength of the last two hours, what would it be? His answer was that I should go away and buy the Green Book, and basically learn it from cover to cover.

I immediately went and bought the Green Book, and within half an hour realised what 'learning it from cover to cover' was going to entail. I was still in the band as well as doing a day job at the time, and there were just not anything like enough hours in the day to be able to do this properly. The Green Book went on a shelf and stayed there for about the next four years.

In 2006 I decided to give it another shot - so, I picked it up and started at page 1. In the time between then and now, I've practised, on average, between an hour and a half and two hours for every day I've been at home - currently approaching two thousand hours in total. I've still never had a lesson, not out of arrogance or the residual crassness of my teenage years, but simply because I couldn't afford it. Ironically, in 2001, I could have, but not now. Still: I've worked my way through the scales - first the majors, then the melodic minors, then the harmonic minors, along with all of their permutations, all 216 of them. At the time of writing I'm currently in the course of recapping all 216 for the third time, it being the case that I have the perhaps unfortunate Virgo characteristic of demanding perfection of myself whether that is an attainable goal or not. One of the main disadvantages of not having a teacher or formal lessons is that obviously you have no yardsticks to measure by other than those you set yourself. I've tried learning at various speeds and found that the tempo ramp of 150 - 180 b.p.m. ( that's actual notes played, just for clarification ) seems to challenge me just enough without making the target unreachable. However, as mentioned in my original post, I had no way of knowing whether this general range of tempi was a standard that would be considered reasonable, and measuring it against what would be expected in a grading exam seemed to be as good a way to judge as any. However, as I've mentioned, information online seems confusing at best - indeed, even Colin's response - which I very much appreciate, by the way, as I do the others - leaves me unclear as to whether, when he refers to 80 - 90 b.p.m, he means crotchet beats ( so that my upper limit of 180 actual notes per minute would be about right ) or a far more modest pace of 80 - 90 notes per minute.

I do practise all scales by the same tempo ramp ( once I've learned them properly ); I had assumed that this was expected. However, even having practised relentlessly ( to date, getting on for 200 lots of 50 repetitions ), the B flat minor harmonic contrary scale continues to give me nightmares - the spread of f3 and f4 on the left hand, between the F# and A notes, being the main difficulty. I've noted from various online information that the 'curled-finger' approach ( 'as though you're holding a tennis ball or a baby bird' ) seems to be considered the absolute correct way of playing pretty much everything, although as with almost all aspects of playing the piano, there seem to be almost as many different viewpoints as there are musicians. Some seem to take the view that if it's more comfortable to play any particular scale or piece 'flat-fingered', then there's no reason why you shouldn't; others take the view that this is simply laziness. Then there's the 'thumbs-over' technique, which I only recently discovered; purportedly, this makes some of the 'harder' scales easier to play; in reality, I can't say I've found this to be true, although of course I don't know for sure if I'm doing it right!

So there we are: that's more or less where I'm at. I know it's a long read, but hopefully it will clarify the reasoning behind the original question. Finally, just by-the-by, for anyone who's trying to do the arithmetic - I'm fifty-five.

Thank you all for your contributions, and any further observations from anyone who has had the patience to digest the above will be gratefully received.

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Colin Nicholson » 13 Nov 2011, 01:21

To answer your question amongst your huge post! .... I refer to a crotchet beat at all times.... so 80 beats per minute refer to 80 crotchet beats. The usual notation for ABRSM scales is a quaver per note (not rocket science!).... so you play 2 notes per tick on the metronome.

I used to teach an adult with similar eccentric behaviour - he had about 4 or 5 lessons, and everything was sorted - his scales/ tempo/ time-keeping and general fluency in his playing was spot on.

Try a few lessons - this will save you alot of typing!!

Question is.... although scales are used to enhance your playing, what kind of music do you play? (Scales are not everything!).... I mean, do you use rubato/ stretto in your playing, and are you generally a "musical person" ? ...... only a professional teacher can tell you this.
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Firefox1701 » 13 Nov 2011, 11:28

I absolutely love the idea that I'm considered 'eccentric'!

It was, I know, a huge post; basically just for the purpose of explaining where I'm 'coming from', as it were. To the great misfortune of anyone reading this, I learned to type long before I learned to play keyboards ...!

As regards the 80 b.p.m. thing: no, not rocket science, as you say; but I do have to point out that the Green Book - the 'Manual of Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords for pianoforte' as produced by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which was quite understandably introduced to me as the Bible where these things are concerned - gives the notation of all scales in semiquavers. I do, therefore, feel that my confusion on the subject is justified, particularly since the book itself gives no indication whatsoever as to what sort of speeds to start at or aim for. Add that to the plethora of conflicting information on the internet ( in the course of the last few days alone it's been suggested to me that speeds up to 240 actual notes played per minute should be considered not only obtainable but desirable ) and I feel it's not entirely unreasonable that I was somewhat unclear on the matter.

In my original post I mentioned that I have been working to a speed ramp which tops out at what I described as 180 b.p.m. - or 90 b.p.m. expressed in crotchet beats, as you say. I assume from your original post that you would consider this a reasonable speed to be practising at with a view to attaining a good pass at Grade 1. My hope, given that I have learned all of the scales at this speed ( notwithstanding the ongoing struggle with B flat harmonic minor contrary ... ! ) was to get some indication of what grade I had reached; from what you say, it seems the answer would be 'Grade 1'.

I am doing this, now, more or less solely for the purpose of self-improvement. I do not delude myself that there is a possibility of making a career as a geriatric concert pianist, as nice as that would be. If there is any possibility at all that I will be playing for money again at some point in the future, it is certainly not the driving force behind the endeavour. With that in mind, what I have to ask myself is whether or not the nearly-2000 hours I've spent on this over the last four and a half years is justified, and more to the point, whether or not spending an average of almost three hours a day ( taking into account the time it takes to write up the practise-diary I keep ) for more or less the indefinite future, is also justified. In order to make that judgment, I have to have some sort of independent yardstick by which to measure what I've done so far.

You're right, undoubtedly, that a few lessons would make a difference, and believe me when I tell you that if that was a luxury I could afford, I'd do it tomorrow. The arrogance of believing that I could do it all without any outside guidance is long behind me, I assure you. It is my intention, when I've finished recapping all 216 scales for the third or possibly fourth time ( i.e. when I've got them right, at least to my own satisfaction ) to try to repeat the exercise of ten years ago and go to see a teacher for a couple of hours, if only for an assessment. However, this is not something that I can afford to do on a regular basis, whether I like it or not. If it does seem to be the case, on the strength of that assessment or any other input that I might receive in the meantime, that a few more lessons would be worthwhile ( as opposed to beating a dead horse well into it's afterlife ), then I'll try to get some money together to afford them. However, as I say, whether I like it or not, that's not something that's going to happen tomorrow or the next day.

To answer your final question, as an example of the kind of pieces I've learned during the course of the last few years: Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca; ELP's version of Hoedown, but played on the piano; 'The Promise' ( the theme from the film 'The Piano' ); and by way of being at least vaguely contemporary, a selection of Police songs. I would not say that I use rubato, at least not intentionally! Having become accustomed to practising not only the scales but the practise pieces to the strict tempo of the computer, you will appreciate that this does not readily lend itself to the use of rubato. I'm sure the likes of Mozart and Chopin, both, I believe, exponents of that method at least to some extent, used it to great effect; I don't think I'm quite at that level of expertise yet, though! For the same reason, neither the kind of music I've played nor my degree of proficiency in playing it have lent themselves to the use of stretto.

And lastly, of course ... am I a 'musical person' ...?

As someone who's spent a large portion of their life involved in music, I would like to think that the answer would be 'yes'. My honest self-appraisal would be that there are some aspects of music with which I am very 'at home', and others that are completely alien to me and with which I struggle. The bottom line is exactly as you say, that only a professional teacher could give an impartial and expert opinion. As mentioned above, I hope to find one at some point probably early next year; although I have to say I'm not sure what criteria I would use to judge whether any given piano teacher is any better qualified than any other to make that assessment or indeed to advise me further.

I continue to be grateful for your input and welcome any further thoughts from yourself or any other contributors who have had the time and patience to indulge me thus far.

Thanks again.

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Colin Nicholson » 13 Nov 2011, 17:10

http://www.musicroom.com/Search/Find.as ... e+5+scales

Above link shows the scales books I use - this is Grade 5 as an example. Some scales are overlapped from one grade into the next - Grade 5 shows them all.

Here are recommended minimum speeds for scales as set by ABRSM (from your original post. As the grades get higher, the metronome changes not only the bpm, but also the kind of beat (eg minim).
scalespeeds.JPG
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Gill the Piano » 13 Nov 2011, 17:58

The ELP comment made me smile; I remember hearing Keith Emerson playing Honky Tonk Train Blues an rushing out to get the sheet music. Nearly 40 years on and I can only play the first two pages with any degree of competency! :)
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Firefox1701 » 13 Nov 2011, 22:10

It must be me: I must just be mind-numbingly dense.

At grade 4, the beat changes from crotchet to minim and the value from 80 to 52 - presumably, if the actual scale is played as quavers, meaning that the amount of notes played per minute changes from 160 to 210. To me, 210 still seems fast, but at least the increase in speed makes sense - until you carry that on up to grade 8, which on that reckoning you'd have to be playing at a staggering 352 notes played per minute. I'm not even sure I can programme the computer to play that fast.

On the other hand, if you assume that the individual notes played change from quavers to crotchets at the same time as the Grade 3 / Grade 4 metronome setting changes from a crotchet to a minim, now it means that Grade 8 requires you to play 176 actual notes per minute. Even allowing for the 20 - 30 b.p.m. increase per minute that you mention in your original post, this still makes a total of around 200 actual notes per minute, which as I say, still seems fast, but arguably do-able ( although I wouldn't relish trying the B flat minor harmonic contrary at that kind of lick! ). The problem with that, of course, is that when you then extend that backwards from Grade 8, it theoretically means that going from Grade 3 to Grade 4, you're actually required to play less notes per minute ( i.e. 104 at Grade 4 as opposed to 160 at Grade 3 ). Since I can't believe that you'd only be expected to play at 104 notes per minute at Grade 4, this means that the first explanation must be the right one. Please tell me I've got this wrong ... please tell me that I wouldn't be expected to play at 352 notes per minute plus the 20 or 30 that you suggest adding for good measure! If anyone knows of any videos of someone playing at getting on for 400 notes per minute on YouTube, please point me towards them ... I thought Keith Emerson was pretty amazing, but I don't believe even he could do this, not even if you plugged him directly into the national grid!!!

Seriously ... I know you're probably thinking that I'm really really thick by now, but I really don't get it! - Or else if the above explanation is the right one, and after four and a half years of practising and something like thirty-five years of playing all told, the best I can achieve is Grade 3, I think that might have made my decision as to whether or not this is something worth pursuing for what would undoubtedly be the rest of my natural life!!

All of that aside ... if it's any comfort, Gill, it's taken me that 35 years to achieve Hoedown more or less accurately on the piano at 285 b.p.m. ... although given the above, I'm not sure what that should be telling me ... !

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Firefox1701 » 16 Nov 2011, 12:03

I'm well aware that people reading this, if there are any who have actually indulged me this far (!) may well be thinking, 'if he just had a teacher, then the teacher would be telling him all this!'. Since I've addressed the reasons why that isn't the case earlier in the thread, I won't labour it further, but suffice it to say that that's not something that will be happening tomorrow or the next day.

Having said that: whilst I'm sure a teacher would be able to answer this - and for that matter the other questions I've asked elsewhere - for me, it baffles me that it's so hard to find the answer any other way. Let me say that this is not meant to express ingratitude for Colin's attempt to educate me; it's just that for the reasons I stated in my last post, that chart doesn't make sense to me. In fairness, I'd also have to reiterate that it's perfectly possible that that's because of something I'm missing rather than there being any fault with the chart itself; but at face value, either the idea that you only have to play 104 notes per minute to pass Grade 4, or the idea that you have to play 352 notes per minute to achieve Grade 8, seem to me to be untenable.

For the sake of my sanity, I'm going to try asking the question a different way. If anyone feels inclined to indulge me further - and I don't blame you if you don't!! - can anyone express the speeds for the eight grades in terms of the actual amount of notes per minute that you're required to play ( thus removing the question of whether those notes are defined as semi-quavers, quavers or even crotchets )? - And if in fact it is the case that there is a drop from 160 notes per minute to 104 notes per minute between Grades 3 and 4, can anyone explain to me why this is the case?

I look forward to further developments with interest!

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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Colin Nicholson » 17 Nov 2011, 13:43

In terms of "actual notes" (eg 104 notes per minute).... this is not a method I am familiar with, sorry.

"can anyone express the speeds for the 8 grades ........" - well, it may be possible - but you would probably have to pay someone for this information - and would take along time to convert a classical method of training into a mathematical one.

In terms of the chart - this is set by the ABRSM, not me, and again, I suggest if you are quering the difference between Grade 3 & 4, why not email them.... Nigel Scaife is the syllabus director. Although the content of the scales changed in 2009, I believe the minimum speeds have always been place for as long as I have been teaching.

I rarely take much notice of these minimum speeds for my pupils - I just sort of 'know' what the speeds are through experience.

I think that maybe some of the information you are seeking could be forwarded onto the ABRSM forum (I am a member aswell).... and even questions can be posed to the Chief Examiner.

In terms of providing additional information to what I originally said, there is a fine line between giving "friendly and free" information away, and then it becoming chargeable (normally at this stage - any mentioning of charges usually results in breaking out into a fever & sweat!!!!). Some of the information you request may also be on the border of exceeding the normal 'casual' advice that is given on this forum, .... unless someone else begs to differ?

I myself provide an on-line teaching facility - adult learners (who live quite a long way a way) send me MP3 (or iPod) recordings of their playing at a certain point of their playing - say, just a few bars - or about a minute in length. Non - pianotime customers pay me a nomimal fee for this service.

I am willing to hear your scales as they are - and should be accompanied with a short narration - eg speed chosen, a recording with a metronome, one without. I spend around one hour listening to the music, then replying (as a recording) with an appropriate performance by myself.... all done online!

If you see the image below, this is a recording I received yesterday from an adult learner who is mastering a certain section of the Moonlight Sonata (1st movement in C# minor). However, tuition is limited - and the reply/ response time is alot slower than having an actual lesson in the flesh The customer is happy - he pays me good money - and I will return the recording with my version - along with a narration (if needed) of a particular section of the music.

If you would me to hear your scales - PM my email address, and I can advise you further on recording facilities/ costs etc.

See below ..... >> (you cant hear anything, just showing the format)
onlinelessons.JPG
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Re: Piano scales - correct speed?

Post by Colin Nicholson » 17 Nov 2011, 18:38

I think that I have a plausible explanation for the relationship between the metronome and the playing of scales.... and the logistics behind it... well, hope so!

Firstly, take a grade 8 major scale (legato/ 4 octaves) - C major.

When a metronome beat is given - in this case, 88 [minim] beats per minute, yes this does equate to a possible 352 notes in a minute (assuming at a quaver speed). However, this just tells us the overall speed of the scale, not how long it will take us to play it. Yes, if we continued up and down the piano playing 352 quavers - this would be twice up and down the whole piano consisting of 88 notes..... and bingo, it should take about 1 minute.

However for (sake of argument) we take a grade 8 scale, this only consists of four octaves, ascending and descending; therefore only 57 notes are being played (assuming right hand only). At a speed of 88 minim beats per minute, this took me ten seconds to play.... not bragging here, but thats slow!

I usually practise my scales at some incredible speeds - say around 120 minim beats per minute (480 notes)...... and this takes me seven seconds to play 4 octaves - ascending & descending.

So the theory behind the metronome is only to provide an outline of the speed of each note in relation to the beat per minute.... and of course, a four octave scale is only a fraction of the time.

Just out of interest, I also tested out (using a stop watch) how quickly I could play a RH ascending chromatic scale, starting on bottom A (a1) and finishing on C88.... at a speed of 160 minim beats per minute!!.... and this also took me fourteen seconds - so approx. taking me 0.15 of a second per note.

Obviously we can talk about numbers & maths all day long, and using varied methods to work out speeds, but when it comes to say, the 2nd page of the A flat polonaise by Chopin.... that massive ascending (glissando effect) scale of b flat melodic minor.... this is impossible to relate to numbers/ beats per minute etc.... you have to literally 'fly' up the keys - hands together within a reasonable time to reach the next beat (often accompanied by an irregular grouping of notes, with the number '32' written above them!!!!)

I'll just stick to my methods I think ..... and if we take the ABRSM syllabus as a benchmark, then Grades 1 - 4 require 2 octave scales; Grade 5 = 3 octaves, and Grades 6, 7 and 8 = four octave scales.. this is the normal compass for scales to be played at those grades, each grade varying in the level of difficulty of the notes, combined with added octaves, and an increase in speed per grade - no matter how slight.
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