The Scales I Couldn’t Pass

I started taking piano lessons when I was about seven. And I started practicing my scales the very same day. Not just one scale, all of the major scales. My teacher (who ate ice cream during the lesson) wrote the letter of every scale out for me in a notebook. He sent me home with the notebook and told me to practice.

I knew right away that I didn’t like practicing scales. But I also knew that the more diligently I practiced the pieces I was assigned, the sooner I “passed” them and moved on to other pieces.

And so I labored over the scales. Over and over, day after day, I read/sang the note names in a tone-deaf fashion while I worked to program my fingers to coordinate: “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C [weary breath]; D, E, F sharp, G…”

Every lesson, I dreaded the beginning—playing through my scales. And every week, when I finished my lesson, I left with instructions to work on those horrid scales.

Finally! The glad day came when all the practicing paid off. I managed to play through every scale beautifully in the presence of my teacher. He even said so. And he drew a smiley face in my notebook to prove his sincerity.

When I returned home, my mom didn’t have a chance to ask her usual “How’d your lesson go?” because I immediately sang out the joys of having passed my scales. “Dr. Zachary said I did a good job!” and I opened my notebook to display his mark of praise. “I passed my scales! Finally!”

My mom rejoiced with me, but, being far wiser to the devious methods of piano teachers, she then clarified Dr. Zachary’s words: “Oh no, you will never pass your scales. ‘Good job’ is not the same as passing. Scales are important for every other part of piano playing.” And then the heart-sinker, “You will practice scales for the rest of your life.”

Way to pull a dark cloud over the rest of a seven-year-old’s life.

But sure enough, it was the truth. At my next lesson, Dr. Zachary began with the cheerful greeting, “Now let’s hear your scales!”

Bummer. “C, D, E, F, G…”

Several years later, after a long lapse in piano lessons, I began taking from another teacher. Dr. Zachary would have been proud of her because she also believed in scales.

But Mrs. Curry taught me new scale techniques. As a seven-year-old, my fingers had been too small to manage the correct fingering, but Mrs. Curry taught me to play an entire scale with one hand. She also taught me to use the scales to practice varied rhythms and strength-training. Mrs. Curry herself, as well as her husband who was a concert pianist, could play scales inside out and upside down. They could manipulate a scale to actually sound beautiful.

Suddenly, the scale cloud lighted a little, and becoming a proficient pianist didn’t seem quite so bleak. I finally understood that scales were indeed foundational to music theory and to accomplished playing.

I don’t take piano lessons any more. (I’m sorry, Dr. Zachary and Mrs. Curry.) And I certainly don’t practice scales!

But sometimes when I’m struggling to learn a life lesson that I thought I had already learned, I feel a similar cloud of drudgery to the one I experienced after I thought I had passed my scales.

In fact, to be perfectly truthful, I often feel I am relearning and practicing the same truths over and over. Recently, when I complained about these repeated lessons to the Lord, He reminded me of Dr. Zachary and the scales. Of my mom’s comment. Of Mrs. Curry’s proficiency. And then I realized that I wasn’t re-learning a truth I had forgotten. I was simply practicing a foundational truth at new levels and with matured techniques.

That realization was like a ray of hope that shed light on Galatians 6:9, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”

Are you disheartened by having to repeat a lesson you thought you had already passed? Take heart! You’re growing more proficient, and you’re learning to apply it to a level that will make it sing.

Oh, and, by the way, don’t ever get too eager to completely pass; you’ll be practicing your “scales” for the rest of your life! 🙂

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