“So, Miss Amy, what about Scale Olympics?”

I looked up from the student’s practice notebook where I was scribbling down a new scale assignment.

“What about them?”

“Well, you know, we haven’t done Scale Olympics for a really long time.”

The kid was right. In fact, I had sort of forgotten about Scale Olympics, but this was a game I invented for performance classes years ago. The rules were somewhat vague, but involved teams playing scales, and the possibility of shooting the moon, with the winning team not having to play scales for an ENTIRE WEEK.

My kids LOVE Scale Olympics. And anytime Scale Olympics are looming, students practice scales really, really well. From a pedagogical perspective, there is nothing here not to support.

And so, the first week of the semester, I announced that Scale Olympics would take place during the September performance classes. Immediately, the kids sat up straighter. They asked lots of clarifying questions regarding fingering and the required number of octaves. Major and minor? In eighths, tenths, thirds and sixths? What about Long Do? (Yep. Yep. Yep.)

If the threat of Scale Olympics got the kids thinking about scales, it served the same function for me.  Which of course, made me reconsider the 15 Outfit Theory. Turns out it works for scales too, with plenty of mix and match options.


  1. Basic Scales:  

One octave-quarter notes; Two octaves-eighth notes; Three octaves-triplets; Four octaves-sixteenth notes. This can be done in the traditional, up then down approach. Or as a fun mix and match, down then up (Beware: this is harder.).


  1. Dynamics: 

Play forte; piano; anything in between; crescendo up, decrescendo down; reverse; one hand forte, the other piano; reverse; yadda, yadda, yadda.


  1. Articulations:  

Both hands play staccato or legato; one hand staccato, one hand legato; reverse, staccato going up, legato coming down; reverse….


  1. Long “Do” Scales:  

All tonic pitches are twice as long as all other notes.


  1. Race to “Do” (a variation, as it were, of #4):  

Hold tonic (or “Do”). Race as fast as possible to the next tonic pitch.


  1. Rhythms:  

Options are endless here, but some common poetic rhymes we use in the studio are: Pease Porridge Hot.  Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Roses are Red.


  1. Metronome Scales:  

Knock yourself out. Can be done in conjunction with Long Do or with straight quarter, eighth, triplets or sixteenth notes depending upon number of octaves. Down then up is another option. The aim is to start slow and work up to a fast, maximum tempo (My teacher Jane Allen’s tempo requirements were four-octave scales, played in sixteenth notes, quarter note =160. Yep. Crazy fast.).


  1. 2 to 1 Scales:

One hand plays eighth notes, the other quarter notes. The hand playing eighth notes will play two octaves (separate your hands by two octaves at the beginning if the left hand is the eighth-note hand or the hands will crash), the quarter-note hand will play one octave. Reverse.


  1.  3 to 1 Scales:  

Like #8, but instead of eighth notes, one hand will play triplets, the other quarter notes (This means when the left hand has triplets, the hands must begin three octaves apart.). Reverse.


  1. 3 to 2 Scales:  

This is more difficult, but such a good way to get a handle on 3 against 2 rhythms. One hand plays triplets, the other eighth notes. Separate hands as necessary. Reverse. 3 to 4 Scales (triplets versus sixteenth notes) is equally good.


  1. Scales in “double” octaves:  

This is great for working on voicing octaves and for reinforcing the fourth finger on black notes. I find that these scales are strangely enlightening for students because playing octaves in each hand requires us to think the note patterns in a slightly novel way. Additionally, when students need the work of stretching their hands across an octave, scales in octaves are a good practice.


  1. Scales in thirds:

No, I don’t mean double thirds, although that could be an option too.  What I mean is that the hands start a third apart. For example, in C Major the left hand would start on C, the right hand would start on E. All traditional fingerings apply. Tricky because of the closeness of the hands.


  1. Scales in tenths:

Like #12, the hands begin on different pitches, a tenth apart. This simply means that the 3rds from #12 are now an octave apart. This is easier in some ways—the hands are not playing so close together—but harder in other ways, as it is more difficult to keep the integrity of the 10th and not fall into 9ths or 11ths or some odd interval. I often start by assigning the Long Do variation (#4) on these, so the student can concentrate on organizing one octave at a time and regrouping as necessary.


  1. Scales in sixths:  

Again, like #12 and #14, except the right hand starts on the tonic pitch and the left hand begins a sixth below. In addition to the Long Do variation, scales in thirds, sixths and tenths can all be worked with the metronome as well at various speeds (Of course, adding articulations and dynamics is another way to combine different variations too.).


  1. Two more random tricks for messing with our heads:

Rainbow Scales and Scale Canons. Rainbow Scales (check out the book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians by Jefferey Agrell for more creative ideas) are played hands separately. Go up or down any number of octaves (all fingering and notes correct!!), in any random, improvisatory rhythm and tempo. Something about taking the steady ruler of rhythm and tempo out of the equation tests our brains and makes us really know the fingering and notes better.


Scale Canons are to be done with a partner. Each pianist can play scales in one or two hands for any number of predetermined octaves. One person begins and the other starts some time later. For example, the second pianist can begin when the first pianist is on the fifth note, or the third note or the sixth note (the less harmonic, the wackier for our ears and concentration!). Long Do scales can work here just fine.


In the end, the actual Scale Olympics were a bit anti-climatic. In one class the two teams were neck and neck the whole way until one kid ripped off four octaves of C-sharp minor flawlessly, and then the kid from the other team stumbled over B-flat major. In the other class, one team so dominated that the other team started screaming “Rigged!”  (Later I wondered, “In a post 2016 election world is our first response to everything ‘Rigged’?”)

Just so you know, Scale Olympics were not rigged. But really, I don’t care what the kids think, the actual game being inconsequential to the process of getting there.

Once again, it’s all about the practice.