Let me first start by saying that I have been putting off writing this article for a while. Why? Because I knew it meant that I would have to buckle down on my scales before I start writing something that is designed to hopefully help others. I’m happy to say that I have been practicing my scales every morning over the past couple of weeks and think I can safely say I have found a method that will help me get my scales up to the blazing fast speed of 192 bpm. That speed is crazy, I know. The founder of Piano Marvel, Aaron Garner, said that he thought it was an unattainable goal when he first made it. But, after I saw him play an Eb Harmonic Minor scale in under 5 seconds, I knew it was going to be possible for all 24 Major and Harmonic Minor scales - it’s just a ton of work. The good news is that I have found a few different tips along my journey towards becoming a “Scale Ninja,” and I plan to share them with you right now so that you can benefit from my experiences and hopefully try to become a Scale Ninja as well! Let's go.
Minor disclaimer before we start: to measure the speed of my scales, I use a free resource called “Scale Ninja” that can be found in the software called “Piano Marvel.” Currently, I work for Piano Marvel and have been a part of the team for about three years. I got started using Piano Marvel after hearing about it on Dr. Josh Wright's YouTube channel, where he made a video talking about the SASR, and have been a big fan of it ever since. Ok, now that that's out of the way, let's get started!
So let me first say that this goal is pretty difficult and because so, I would say that it is probably more suited for advanced pianists. If I were to give prerequisites for attempting this, I’d say that one should already be able to play all 24 Major and Harmonic Minor scales memorized at a relatively quick and stable speed. A great way to test this would be to see if you can become a Blue Belt on all 24 scales in “Scale Ninja - Pro.” If this isn’t something that you can attain yet, then a great next step would be to check out “Scale Ninja - Advanced'' and aim to become a Ninja on all 24 scales there first. If that's also a little bit outside of your wheelhouse that's fine! We also offer a Beginner and Intermediate Scale Ninja. The most important thing to do is find your level and start the journey! Once you have become a "Ninja" in "Scale Ninja - Advanced", I’d be willing to bet that you’ll be able to make the switch back to Scale Ninja Pro seamlessly.
So, once you have made it into Scale Ninja Pro, there are a few milestones that I would aim for across all 24 scales. I want to emphasize that trying to get a ≤5-second scale for each key starting from C Major is NOT how I'd go about doing this. I strongly suggest you reach a milestone for all of your scales - 12 Major and 12 Harmonic Minor. It surprised me to learn that practicing different scales speeds up and strengthens your other scales! For example: getting an 80% on every other key but C Major strengthens and speeds up your C Major. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see your scores go up on some scales simply because you practiced others!
With that being said, let's talk about the first milestone. The first milestone I think you should shoot for is an 80% on every scale (4 octaves, hands together). An 80% would make you a Blue Belt in Scale Ninja. The next milestone would then be to get a 90% or higher on all 24 scales, making you a “Brown Belt.” Now let me say this wasn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, especially on trickier scales like Eb Harmonic Minor but, I don’t remember having to do anything necessarily special to achieve this goal. Simply playing through the scale many times over and "getting it into my fingers" was all it took for me to complete this milestone. After this is where things did start to get tricky for me, though...
The next milestone is becoming a “Black Belt,” which means getting at least 96% on every scale. Simply playing through the scale many times over wasn’t working for me anymore at this point. To get 96% on each scale, I had to use some different tricks and techniques to speed up my scales, which is where we get into the “heart” of what this article is really about. Getting to 96% required me to get to a speed that I had never attempted before. To get 96% on each scale, I had to use a method that my boss, Aaron Garner, developed when he first built Scale Ninja almost one year ago. Now, maybe it’s just me, but when change comes into my life, I sometimes push back pretty hard against it. I guess I’m just resistant to change (maybe it’s time to read “Who Moved My Cheese?” again...)
For whatever reason, I didn’t believe this method would work because of two, almost contrasting reasons: it seemed too hard and it seemed too simple to work. Now, I don’t mean simple as in “easy,” but simple as in, “if you do A and then B, you will get C.” I couldn’t believe that these steps would lead me to success and boy was I wrong!
If I were to summarize this method, it would consist of three main steps, which are:
The article that I’m referring to can be found here and describes all of these steps listed above in more detail, but let me give you some information about why I was so resistant to this method. First off: I’m a die-hard Piano Marvel user. Because of this, I want to put everything into Piano Marvel - sometimes against my better judgment. This was precisely one of those cases. When I saw Aaron make those exercises, part of me wanted so badly to make all of the exercises in Finale and upload them to Piano Marvel and call them the “Scale Ninja - Trainer.” Side note: I tried this little endeavor and it was a major flop. Let me tell you why: I was trying to make this more complicated than it needed to be and wasn’t doing the work necessary to get my scales faster. I was basically just wasting time. At this same point in time, Aaron had already become a Ninja on all 24 scales, so he had already proved this method worked. I was simply resisting and trying to find a “better way” of doing what had already been done.
What got me finally to try this out was Aaron telling me that I should give this a try and that it would probably take 10 minutes or so. At this point, I had exhausted my resources and nothing was working, so ten minutes sounded pretty good. I mean, who doesn't have ten minutes they can spare? Now, I think it might have taken me 15 or 20 minutes, but after trying this out I had some truly amazing results. First off: I learned that I didn’t need to have the “add one-note” exercise written out for me, which is what I wanted so badly. Learning how to do this exercise was challenging for the first couple of minutes or so because of what it takes to remember the correct fingering, but (and this is a BIG but!) I’d say that’s the exact reason you WANT to practice it this way and not rely on reading! This way helps you further internalize the fingering for each scale! :)
The next lesson I learned was that trying to do the scales in rhythms just wasn’t ever going to be something that worked well in Piano Marvel. One of the main reasons I wanted to put them in Piano Marvel was to track my practice minutes (like I said: die-hard Piano Marvel user). To counteract that problem, I started using Prepare Mode whenever I practiced a scale using Aaron’s method. In doing this, I found out that using Prepare Mode helped me gauge what percentage I should be shooting for when practicing Aaron's rhythms. This is something I never would’ve thought of and could only have come from trying this new way of practicing.
So, what was that magic number I was using as the bar to shoot for? From a lot of testing, the magic number I found to work quite well was 80%. That 80% number is something that I continue to shoot for when playing Aaron’s rhythm exercises and trying to achieve 100% “Ninja” status. Now, I want to say that some rhythms will be very difficult to get an 80% on. I can’t tell you how many 79’s I have gotten! In those cases, I tried my best to make sure I played as fast, clean, and error-free as possible. If 79% was all I could get to after a few minutes of really trying, then I’d move on. I did this because my goal was to get through Aaron’s ENTIRE method of speeding up your scales on one scale each day. Completing this is a great routine that is guaranteed to speed you up by at least a percentage point or two. There might be some days where it will take longer than 20 minutes to complete but, funny enough, I found that time would fly by! It was amazing to see how engaging my scale practice was becoming!
Now, I’d love to be able to tell you that, after going through all 24 keys and getting them to 96% that getting to 100% was just as “easy” as following the steps from above, but - sadly - I can't. It worked for Aaron, who has played piano for the vast majority of his life with 10 years of college studies in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. But for me, who is an almost-30-year-old pianist that has only been playing the piano seriously for about six years, I found that I needed to find another little "special something" that could help me get to that 100% mark. Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: Aaron’s curriculum works! By following it, I was able to get a couple of 100's along the way while all I was shooting for were 96’s. I wasn’t lucky enough, however, to get 100’s on all my Black Belt attempts. So, once I became a Black Belt, I found that I had about 75% of my scales that still needed to get to 100%, and I had no clue how I would do that. It almost seemed unhuman to play scales any faster, but I knew it was possible...
So what did I do? After remembering hearing Dr. Josh Wright stress the importance of rhythms in many of his videos, I thought, “hmm, maybe I should give these a try.” Here’s the video I re-watched which ultimately helped me figure out how to start utilizing his rhythms to help me become a Ninja:
In Dr. Wright’s video, he explains that every rhythmic grouping should end with your hand(s) being relaxed. He also mentions that if a grouping is difficult, you should play it repeatedly until it is comfortable. For the past two weeks, I have been using an adaptation of these strategies and I feel like I am really starting to make some good progress. Let me explain how I have been using Dr. Wright’s rhythm tips:
First, I open the scale in Piano Marvel and play each grouping, hands together multiple times, until it feels really good. I do this all the way up and down the scale. Once that is done, I move on to the next rhythm. This maybe takes six minutes or so on the first rhythm, but that time goes down a little bit for each of the remaining rhythms. I also make sure that if I am working on 4 note rhythms, for example, I go through all four rhythms before I try and see if my speed has increased. I want to note that while practicing this exercise, I was vaguely reminded of how Aaron’s “rolling” exercises work where you must correctly roll a group of 3 or 4 notes four times in a row. Focusing on each group being quick and clean allowed me to speed up the tricky spots in the scale that I wasn't aware of.
After using both Aaron’s and Dr. Wright’s exercises, I was able to become a Ninja in both Eb Major and Bb Major in about a week. Now I know this might be premature, but I think it's safe to say that I have found a method that will help me achieve Ninja status on all 24 scales - and I didn’t even get to Dr. Wright’s “harder” rhythms! Those of you that watched Josh’s video from above: I have never had to do rhythms past four note groupings! I'm not saying that will always be the case, but I thought it was pretty cool that just those basic two, three and four rhythms were able to do the trick! :)
Okay, so we’re nearing the end. I wanted to wrap things up with a nice little diagram that will summarize everything I've said into an easy-to-see picture. Please note that I added practicing scales in 6ths, 10ths, 3rds, and Grand Russian Style to my practice routine for how I have achieved “Ninja” status. I never covered that in this article because this has been a relatively new addition to my practice sessions. While I don’t know if being able to play scales in these forms will help me become a "Scale Ninja," practicing these are a pretty fun twist. Feel free to give these a try if you’d like! (Who knows: maybe I can add these to Piano Marvel one day!) ;)
Best of luck with improving your scales! If you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to say that you are serious about wanting to improve your piano technique and I hope that this article will help give you inspiration and help you achieve your goals! If you have any questions along the way, please feel free to send me an email at: [email protected], and I’ll be happy to help however I can.
Thanks so much, and happy practicing! :)