Teaching Video: Students improvising backing tracks for scales

Teaching Video: Students improvising backing tracks for scales


Most students find scale practice pretty dull. So do I. in fact, I find teaching scales pretty dull too!

What’s more, starting lessons with the same old, “Well, let’s hear how your scales have gone this week”, is not likely to inspire students if it’s the same greeting every single lesson.

With this in mind, I thought about how I could break up scale reviews in lessons by doing something different. I sometimes play a simple tonic-dominant patter on another piano while students play scales, especially if they are having trouble with rhythm or if I want to push them to play faster (or just surprise them for a lesson!).

I thought, Why not teach them how to do this themselves so that they can accompany me if I play a scale?

piano teaching tim topham

The result is shown in the video below: It’s a short segment of one of my lessons where I work with a student on creating a simple accompaniment pattern for a scale, first in 4/4 and then in 3/4. Please be aware this concept was just an idea at the time of the video and is very much a work in progress.

This activity builds on a student’s knowledge of chords and simple chord progressions (using the Circle of 5ths) and is a great activity as it gets a student thinking, listening and putting theory into practice. And it’s fun! Students can also record the backing pattern on an iPhone or iPad and play-along to themselves when practising scales.

Before embarking on this idea, I would encourage you to have given your students some experience of composing basic chord progressions using the strategies shown in these previous posts:

  • Chord progressions for beginners – teaching video
  • Strategies for teaching improvisation to beginners

Here’s the lesson:

I believe the skill of improvising simple accompaniment patterns like this is vital for pianists as it’s the sort of thing that’s often required when accompanying other people and playing in groups.

For other blog posts related to improvising and teaching boys piano, check out the notes from my APPC presentation: “Fast and Furious: Strategies and repertoire for teaching boys”.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. Fun stuff! THis is how we “endure” scales review in Piano Lab.

  2. This video is great! I’ve been using backing tracks I created in GarageBand but this is even better! Unfortunately, none of the links work in the my APPC presentation: “Fast and Furious: Strategies and repertoire for teaching boys”. They all lead to this: Sorry, the page you are trying to access doesn’t exist.

    • Hey Glen thanks for letting me know about that issue – I’m looking into it now 🙂

  3. Brilliant! Thanks for this. I’ve just tried it this afternoon with a new adult student who’s just on C maj and G maj at the moment. It was her last lesson before Christmas and she’s off for 3 weeks. We discussed tonic and dominant, and chord progression. In the key of C we covered I, IV, V and the relative minor. Her holiday homework is to practise the chords in 4/4 and 3/4 time.

    • Great stuff! What was the vibe? Do you think she enjoyed exploring the concepts?

  4. Awesome, Tim! I love this.

    • Cheers Jackie!

  5. So cool, love the way you teach as well.

    • Thanks Lynda

  6. Great video, Tim. Most of all, I love how you asked questions and let the student discover the answers. Very effective and wonderfully taught! Keep up the great work!

  7. Thanks Tim. A great idea that I will definitely use as most of my kids also play in bands and will find this very useful.

  8. Whilst I do have a variety of “Ways With Scales” I have never thought to put an accompaniment to them…after all, both hands were doing the scale! But this is thinking out of the regular box. Thanks for a fun, workable idea.

  9. An excellent post Tim – great ideas and much more hi-tech than what I tend to do, which is to vocalise or clap something!

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