June Q&A: Octave Scales, Small Hands and More

In today’s Q&A session, we’re going to be looking at the following questions:

  • How do I play octave chromatic scales?
  • How do I play arpeggios?
  • Can I ever be a piano player if I have small hands?
  • Is it a problem that I read music but don’t memorize it?

Question #1

I’m going to assume that you’re a fairly advanced piano player if you’re asking this question – chromatic octave scales are not for the faint of heart!

The way I was taught to play them was to use fingers 5-1 on the white keys, and 4-1 on the black keys. When you get to two white keys in a row, you can just use 5-1 twice in a row.

I’ve seen other variations of this (like using finger 3), but unless you have really large hands I wouldn’t do this.

Whether you’re doing legato (smooth) scales or solid (staccato) scales, this finger pattern approach should work. It does take time to be able to play these without tensing up – when I first learned them, I would practice octave scale in 1-minute segments scattered throughout my practice. Any more than that and it created too much tension in my hands.

Question #2

Another technique-required question! For those of you who don’t know, arpeggios are basically chords that are played broken-style over several octaves.

I’m going to answer this in two ways. First of all, we’ll look at standard arpeggios that you would play like scales. Then we’ll look at the specific piece Naia is referring to, which is different from standard arpeggios.

For standard arpeggios, whether it’s two or four octaves, the challenge is getting the “hand hops” down so that you can play it at a quick speed.

If you’re playing a C major arpeggio, for example, there’s a sizeable jump between the “G” and “C”. To do this quickly and fluently, you’ll want to do this differently than scales – not a thumb-under cross, more of a throw of your wrist.

Same goes with your left hand when you’re going from C to E on the next octave, or coming back down on the same notes. Doing a “thumb-under” motion will slow you down because it basically forces your whole arm to move and jut out.

However, there’s a caveat – if you’re playing an arpeggio slowly, it’s basically impossible to make this sound smooth. At a slow tempo, I would practice the thumb-under movement until you’re comfortable with the notes. At high speeds, you can discard the thumb-under movement.

The arpeggios in Chopin’s waltz require a repetitive finger movement – 212531 (or 212541) to successfully play them. The challenge here is the vivace (fast) tempo.

If this was a piece I was learning, I would practice playing the arpeggios slowly and smoothly – but then also micromanage little parts, like trying to speed up one bar at a time. A combination of both of these practice types should help you put it all together.

Question #3

Even more important than hand size is finger flexibility. Some people naturally have very “closed” hand positions, while others’ hands tend to sprawl open more easily. Even if you have small fingers, you can work on developing a good spread between your first and fifth fingers – mine can go about 180 degrees, and my hands are not large. But this enables me to reach octaves.

So if your hand span is excellent but you still can’t reach an octave, what do you do? Plenty. When I’m learning Liszt, Chopin or music by other composers with huge hands, it can be challenging to get through those 9ths and 10ths. Most people can reach an octave; few can reach a tenth.

But there are ways around it. Can you play the note in your other hand? Can you play the two notes detached, like how you would strum a guitar chord in slow motion? Can you entirely delete the note?

These are all kinds of things a teacher would be happy to help you with. There’s also lots of repertoire out there that doesn’t require huge stretches (even some Chopin pieces), and a teacher would be able to help you figure that out.

Question #4

I’ve seen both sides of this coin as well. I’ve had students who could sight read their way through anything, but it didn’t ever seem to impress on their memory. Conversely, I’ve had students where, as soon as you put music in front of them, their playing becomes clumsy and they need to memorize the patterns on the spot.

I think that you need to search for a middle ground here, because each tendency points to a deficit.

For example, if you rely on your memory exclusively, your reading will suffer. I don’t care how amazing your memory is – if you can’t read music comfortably, that’s going to be a detriment to your learning.

And it works both ways. If your memory isn’t activating when you read music, you’re missing out on a whole other level of musical competence.

Using myself as an example, I grew up being a good memorizer and a poor reader. Sheet music didn’t “mess me up” per se, but I would often memorize a piece as I learned it, which would take the pressure off the much more difficult task of reading.

Unfortunately, as my level increased and the pieces became more difficult, they also became – surprise, surprise – more difficult to read. This was a major problem for me and really held me back.

So ever since that discovery about a decade ago, I’ve been diligently practicing reading, and I’m much better (though still not great). But I’m much less lopsided now. A decade ago my level might have been 80/20 (where the 80 is my memory and the 20 is my reading), but nowadays it’s more like 60/40.

Anyway – if you’re concerned that your memory muscle is significantly weaker than your reading one, I’d specifically work on that. You might not ever be one of those people who memorizes everything, but you’ll at least be a better-rounded musician.


Thanks for following the June Q&A session! Every month I tackle four piano questions, so if there’s anything you’re wondering, or anything that’s bothering you, let me know!


Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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