Developing technical skills builds strong players. Working through technical challenges can be more beneficial when combined with theory concepts and exponentially more engaging when locked into a groove.
Fellow Clavier Companion contributor and improvisation specialist Bradley Sowash recommends developing scale playing with backing tracks that he generates in an app called iReal Pro. I observed that when I play both of his exercises called Squared Scales and Scaling the Chords with an iReal Pro backing track, I'm more invested in the task and show improvement with coordination and timing.
Seeing my own skills improve with iReal Pro made me think I should combine theory and technique with a groove in more activities for my own students. This triggered the idea of playing five-finger patterns around the circle of fifths. This sequence logically connects just about every aspect of music theory. Major five-finger patterns or pentascales fit nicely under small hands and are the building blocks for triads, tetrachords and scales. Playing five-finger patterns around the circle develops familiarity with the sound of "major," the topography of each key and introduces the tonic/dominant relationship.
This brief video shows the exercise in action:
1. Beginning on C, students play and memorize this melody:
2. After mastering this hands together, students replace the right hand finger five on G with right hand finger one, and replace the left hand finger one on G with left hand finger five.
3. Students play the melody beginning on G. After mastering G, they continue to D.
Through guided discovery, students learn what keys create the major five-finger pattern on D. They discover the whole- and half-step pattern and identify the required black key (F#). Students return to C and G and notice that this pattern holds true for any key. Moving clockwise around the circle, new five-finger patterns can be added each week. Students can eventually play along with the iReal Pro chord chart I generated.
Playing without errors while keeping up with the backing track is challenging, and students ask to do it again and again until they master it. Each week the goal is to play further around the circle with iReal Pro. If it gets too difficult, students continue with only the right hand. Throughout, students are challenged to mind their hand position, change to a staccato touch, add dynamic changes, play the triad in one hand and the pattern in the other, improvise a melody, and more.
iReal Pro is a powerful app which is easy to use, and which makes home practice more fun for students. Playing five-finger patterns is just one of countless ways to use iReal Pro, a powerful tool for building strong musicians in the studio and between lessons.