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Saying the Letter Names of the Notes

In addition to counting the beats in each line of music, I also ask pupils to say or sing the letter names as they play. I explain that letters like to be known by their names and they do not like to be called ‘that one’ any more than the pupil himself would like to be called ‘that one’. (One of my pet hates is hearing pupils play a note on the piano and say ‘is it that one?’ rather than ‘is it an E?’ etc. On the other hand, some actually say: “is that ‘my’ E?” which I find quite endearing.)

If there’s time, I might explain my reason for including the ‘saying the letters’ task – it helps the learner to identify the position and appearance of the note on the stave with its name and subsequently with its position on the piano. I explain that, although at this stage, it’s quite easy to play the correct notes by following finger numbers or the ‘pattern’ of the notes (e.g. if you go from a note on one line to a note on the next line you’re going up two) – you will, at some point, need to be able to identify these notes in a different context when there won’t necessarily be any ‘clues’ (such as finger numbers or easy-to-follow patterns).

An analogy I use for learning to read music is learning to read a book and I relate a tale about my son and his early ‘reading’ experience. (Although there’s not usually time for this story in the very first lesson, depending on how quickly the pupil is picking things up. Some will struggle to complete even just the Right Hand Notation Melodies, while children who have learned to play recorder at school or adults who have had lessons in their younger days, may race through right and left with little difficulty).

I tell how my son could ‘read’ a book called The Three Little Pigs at the age of two. Then, as the pupil sits either open-mouthed or (in the case of other mums) green-eyed with envy, I explain that he wasn’t actually reading it at all. Yes, he was saying all the right words and yes, he was turning over the pages in the right places but it was all totally from memory. If we had shown him the word ‘pigs’ in another book (without pictures) he wouldn’t have recognised it.

I am always determined to encourage pupils to be reading the music right from the start. Obviously they will use clues along the way – such as other nearby notes – even experienced pianists do this sometimes (when there are several ledger lines, for example) but I want them to avoid relying purely on memory.

First Practice Task

So, each line of Notation Melodies is usually played three times. Firstly, the pupil must ‘just’ play it (or, if he wishes, sing the ‘lyrics’ … in this case the rather uninspiring ‘This is up, this is down …’ etc.), secondly, he must count the beats and thirdly he should say, or sing, the names of the notes. I then list these three elements in his notebook as his ‘practice task’ for the week:

1) Play the tune (and sing the words if you wish)
2) Say/sing the letter names as you play
3) Count the beats in the bar out loud as you play

I explain that practice is all about repetition and the more times something is played, (correctly) the easier it will be as, eventually, rather, than having to use your brain each time you play, your fingers will seem to ‘automatically’ play the right notes.

With the more able learners, I will move on to Left Hand Alone, following the same principals. With this, obviously the ‘letter names’ task is slightly more difficult as the pupil must remember to say, in (reverse alphabetical) order: “C, B, A, G, F’.

‘Spotted’ Minims

This is a lot to take in for one lesson – especially for a young child. If time permits, I may hand the beginner a pencil and ask him to point to, say ‘a middle C which you play with the right hand’, or ‘a note which you hold for three beats’ to see how much he has taken in. If he correctly points to the note worth four beats I will then ask him the name for such a note. I recently taught one new pupil whose answer to this was “a spotted minim” and I couldn’t help wishing she was correct. She also referred to a note worth four beats as a “semi-colon” as she’d been learning about punctuation in her school literacy lesson.

Most young pupils seem to remember the ‘semi’ part of the word ‘semibreve’ although they tend to invent their own ending. It may help to mention breves at this point as – although they’re not commonly used in music – at least then it will explain why the prefix ‘semi’ meaning ‘half’ is being used and what the semibreve is actually half of.

At the end of the first lesson, there should be time for a brief chat with the parent (and/or with the pupil himself) to explain what needs to be practised and to reassure both parent and child that anything which hasn’t been fully understood will be explained again in the next lesson but to just ‘have a go’ anyway.

Quick Reminder

I show the notebook to both parent and child – opened at the page where I have outlined what needs to be practised that week. (Unfortunately my handwriting can become illegible if I’m writing at speed while, at the same time, trying to explain something orally: however, hopefully it serves as a memory-jogger, even if some of the words can’t be deciphered).

Each week, I put an asterisk by the items which need to be worked on for next time (whereas if a piece is ‘finished’ I will merely give a ‘report’ on it) and I strongly advise my pupil to consult the notebook before he starts practising. Then there should be no excuses such as: “I forgot/didn’t know what to practise.”

Unfortunately, not all my pupils remember to consult the notebook, so I do hear these excuses – far too many times. It is this kind of thing which tries my patience – far more so than hearing musical mistakes. I find it easy to forgive wrong notes but I think you need endless patience when dealing with a pupil who doesn’t listen or one whom appears to be making no effort.

Then, crucially (!), if the lesson fee hasn’t already been handed over, it’s important to say: “I don’t think I’ve had your payment yet, have I?” or, if you prefer the direct approach: “That’s £11 please.” (Remember if you’re charging an amount which may require change, make sure you have some to hand). Whatever you do, don’t let the customer leave without paying – it’s frustrating and time-consuming when you have to chase up missing payments.

(However, don’t make the mistake – which I did once in the early days – of asking for payment when it has already been given! This is more easily done than you might imagine – especially when you’ve taught several pupils in succession and some have paid in advance so you’re unsure of how much actual cash you should have. Of course one way to avoid this embarrassment is to tick off a student’s name in your diary as soon as he pays you).

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