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Locating Notes on the Piano

Having explained how to locate middle C – along with D, E, etc. – I then point out that the pattern is repeated (for each octave) and may ask the pupil to spot another ‘D’ or another ‘G’ on the piano. Again, this is something which doesn’t necessarily come easily to the beginner: perhaps it depends on whether or not he’s a ‘visual learner’ (as opposed to an auditory or kinaesthetic one). In my case, when I look at any ‘F’ on the piano, it screams: “I’m an F!” at me and – it seems – always has done. Others however, feel the need to count on from C every time.

One of my pupils who’s in his early 20s has found his own solution to this by looking at the white notes either side of the three black keys and deciding that they look like bookends; then he thinks of the online social networking service ‘Face-Book’ to remind him that they’re, rather conveniently, called ‘F’ and ‘B’. This gives him a few more ‘landmarks’ so he doesn’t have to ‘count on’ quite so much.

My next step is to explain the concept of ‘up’ and ‘down’ on the piano. With the younger children I might play (or ask them to play) a few of the lowest notes followed by a few of the highest and ask which animals they are reminded of (the most popular answers being an elephant at one extreme and a bird or mouse at the other). It might help for the child to have a mental picture of this: point to the left of the piano and say ‘imagine the elephants down on the ground’ and then to the right and say:  ‘and then look ‘up’ the piano and picture the little birds high in the sky’.

Time Signatures

I then briefly touch on note values (in The Green Book there’s ‘quarter note, half note’ etc. but I cross these out and write ‘crotchet, minim, dotted minim, semibreve’). I explain that the bottom number (generally 4 in beginners’ pieces) shows the type of beats we’re counting (in this case crotchets), while the top number of a time signature tells how many of these beats in each bar. (Here I indicate with a pencil the lines which separate music into bars).

Sadly, although I go to great pains to explain this and give plenty of examples, I still have children who describe a time signature as if it’s a fraction. I suppose if they happen to be learning about fractions in school maths lessons it can all become a bit confusing.

Finally, I explain, by drawing a stave on the back page of the pupil’s notebook, how notes go up or down on the page following an alternating pattern of ‘on a line, in a space, on a line, in a space etc.’ They then need to realise that ‘up’ on the page also means ‘up’ on the keyboard.

Middle C

Pupils are generally far more interested in middle C and its unique appearance in the music than they are in any of the other notes and commonly ask why middle C ‘has a line through it’ (obviously not realising at this point that there are plenty of other notes above and below the stave which also require ledger lines). I point out that although people see it as ‘a line through it’ it’s probably better to think of middle C sitting on its own special little line purely because the five lines which form a stave have ‘run out’.

While explaining why middle C has a ‘special line’ it may be worth mentioning that what happens with middle C at the bottom of the stave, (when you’re in the treble clef) also happens with A at the top. (see diagrams in Examinations: Sight-Reading). To be honest, though, this is unlikely to register with most children at this point and will probably have to be explained again when they learn greater range of notes.

All this ‘explanation time’ should take no more than 10-15 minutes in total as it’s important for the learner to get his fingers on the piano as soon as possible. Obviously, there is a lot of information here for the beginner to absorb but I make it clear that I don’t expect him to remember everything and it will all fall into place as we start to play.

Sitting at the Piano

Before he does so, however, I always make a few points about positioning of the body and hands: “Sit around the middle of the stool directly facing the piano with your feet on the ground (for those who can reach) and your legs uncrossed. Keep your shoulders down and as relaxed as possible. Your hand position should be as if you were holding a ball – have your hands right over the keys, not on the edge and make sure you play with your fingertips.” (See Position and Posture).

Then it’s time to follow Notation Melodies (Right Hand Alone) – the first tune in The Green Book. I ask the pupil to find middle C both on the piano and in the book and remind him how as the notes go higher up on the page, they go higher (like a bird) on the piano.

As the pupil plays, I encourage him to keep one finger on each of the five keys – C, D E, F, G and to follow the music rather than looking at his hand as he plays. Depending on how difficult he finds the task of actually playing these five notes, I may – even at the very early stage – introduce the concept of ‘legato’ (without actually using the Italian term). I explain that it’s actually easier to feel the notes going up one at a time if you don’t totally release the first key until pressing the second one down. This, I explain, will also make the playing smoother and more pleasant to listen to.

Counting the Beats

After the first line of notes has been played (with a brief explanation of the crotchet rest thrown in – ‘raise your hand just above the notes for one beat – don’t put it on your knee!’), I ask the pupil to play again but this time counting the beats in each bar as he does so.

This can produce problems. I usually introduce the counting task by saying: “Right, now we’re going to count up to four, as four is the top number of the key signature and that’s the number of beats in each bar. You probably think counting to four is easy don’t you? I expect you could count to four when you were only four. Well, it’s not as easy as you think when you’re playing the piano at the same time – I bet you can’t do it.’

They are shocked when my prophecy proves right. Some stop at ‘three’ as they don’t count the rest, others, when the notes go down the scale say ‘three, two, one’ instead of ‘one, two three’ as they are reading out the finger numbers. Most count ‘one’ for the semibreve but forget to mention the ‘two, three, four’ which should follow as they can see, hear and feel only one note and have forgotten – or failed to understand – that the idea is to count beats rather than notes.

On the second line of Notation Melodies, the counting task is even more difficult. This time the challenge is to count to ‘three’ despite the fact that: the tune goes up four notes, the fourth finger is used and the word ‘four’ appears in writing as part of the song lyrics.

Here, I tell pupils: “The top number of the time signature says three which is the number of beats I want you to count in each bar, so say over and over again – one two three, one two three, one two three … If you say the word ‘four’ it’s a naughty word, a bit like a swear word so try very hard not to say it.” They all assure me that they won’t ‘swear’ yet many are amazed when the ‘naughty’ word just seems to fall from their lips and they either burst out laughing or clasp their hand over their mouths in horror.

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