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Every Good Boy Does Fine
When I first started teaching, I also passed on another mnemonic from my own childhood lessons: “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for notes on the treble clef lines (using the initial letter of each word). (Variations I have heard include: ‘Every Girl Buys Designer Footwear’ and ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Football”).
However, many of the younger children I was teaching at the time, struggled to remember this phrase and would confuse themselves by saying things like: “All Good Boys Deserve …” so I eventually abandoned this idea and instead, encouraged them to use ‘FACE’ to help identify the notes on the lines as well.
(For a note on the line, they would say the mnemonic, then count up one letter name from the space below).
For bass clef notes, I originally used the initial letters of: “All Cats Eat Goldfish”, which was the phrase I learned but found many young children were splitting the word ‘goldfish’ into two and looking for an extra ‘F-for-Fish’ space on the stave, so I replaced it with “All Cows Eat Grass” – which I introduce when the learner reaches The Submarine in The Green Book. (Again, I abandoned the mnemonic “Good Boys Don’t Fool About” – or, as some would say, “Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart” for notes on bass clef lines – as my younger pupils all had trouble remembering it correctly).
The same girl who was confused about reading FACE from bottom to top also tried to use the ‘L’ from the word ‘All’ to identify the note in the second space up. Of course, she immediately realised that the letter ‘L’ doesn’t apply to any notes and I explained again that – unlike with FACE for the treble clef – for the bass clef it is only the initial letters of “All Cows Eat Grass” which are required. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that all brains work slightly differently and a concept that is quickly acquired by the majority can just as easily cause confusion for others.
Unfortunately, some pupils become so obsessed with mnemonics, that they insist on using them (sometimes incorrectly) when other methods would be much quicker and more reliable. In the case of treble D just below the stave and bass B just above it, for example, it’s far easier to imagine a middle C written on the score and then realise that these notes are – respectively – one note above and one note below it.
Make Friends With Notes
Another, less frequently used, idea is to pick on particular notes and encourage the learner to single them out for special attention. I sometimes use this method if one note is consistently being misread. In the early stages many learners confuse Gs and Fs and find it particularly hard to understand why F is in a space in the treble clef yet on a line in the bass. (They expect a ‘left hand’ F to be an ‘upside down’ version of the right-hand F which is why they mistake bass G for an F). Sometimes I deal with this by setting the task of drawing these notes on manuscript paper.
One particular note which I have found to be commonly misread is the D below middle C (introduced in the piece The Donkey Party). At this point, I tell my learner how my younger son had a particular problem with identifying this note so I told him that – despite being on the middle line where it should command lots of attention – the note was generally unloved and unpopular so I started referring to it as ‘Mr Unpopular’. I soon realised that this name didn’t help my son to remember that the note is called ‘D’ so I changed the name to Mr (D for …) Dreadfully Unpopular.
Both my son and many learners since have done their best to remember poor old ‘Mr Dreadfully’. One young boy drew ‘him’ on a piece of paper and used to take ‘him’ out to play at lunchtime. Others are delighted when they correctly play Mr Dreadfully Unpopular and ‘he’ responds by saying ‘thank you’ (in a rather dodgy deep voice).
A less common problem is reading the C just below Mr Dreadfully. I’ve had a few young learners who are totally confused that this C doesn’t ‘have a line through it’. When I asked one why he thinks it needs a line through it, he quickly corrected himself and said: “Oh no, it’s just right hand C which needs a line through it, isn’t it?” The frustrating thing for me is I don’t feel I’ve ever referred to a ‘right-hand C’ or a ‘C with a line through it’ (Instead, I’m careful to say ‘middle C in the treble clef’ or ‘treble C’ and ‘C that’s on a line’ respectively). However, children will always put their own interpretation on the things you tell them.
Middle C’s Special Line
The only way to deal with this confusion is to explain, again, how written music works and that middle C – both in the treble and bass – is written on a line, but the C an octave above or below is in a space. Then add that middle C is only written on this ‘funny little line’ because the long lines (i.e. the stave) have run out. (To make this clearer, it may be worth showing the learner some music containing multiple ledger lines).
I’ve found many learners become confused by the stems on notes. Despite my advice from the beginning that it’s the ‘blob’ rather than the ‘stem’ of the note which you need to look at when reading music, their minds still see the stem as having some significant meaning.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that – due to the way The Green Book is arranged – they are restricted to playing ‘middle C to G’ in the right hand and ‘middle C down to F’ in the left for several weeks. Therefore, they associate notes with stems going up (as they do in middle C to G) as ‘right-hand notes’ and stems going down as left hand ones. It takes me some time to help them understand that the stems going up or down is dependent on whether the note is written above or below the middle line – and that it’s just to make the music ‘look tidy’.
It’s even harder to make some pupils understand that – in any case – there is no such thing as a ‘right-hand note’ or a ‘left-hand note’ – any note can be played by either hand and with any finger. (This revelation generally leads to looks of open-mouthed astonishment).
Finding Hand Position
Back to finding the hand position … once the learner has successfully named the first note (in the later stages this may involve saying whether it’s one or two octaves above middle C … or even below it) – the next step is to find the note on the piano. As I mentioned earlier, this is not always as easy as you might expect and learners may need ideas such as the ‘Facebook’ one I referred to (in the article on First Lesson), to guide them.
Finally, the pupil should refer back to his book and see which finger is recommended for this note and put the correct finger onto the right note. Then the same procedure should be repeated for the left hand.
1) Read the right hand note (if necessary using ‘FACE’ and say its name.
2) Find the note on the piano (making sure it’s the correct distance above or below middle C).
3) Read the finger number in the book and place the correct right hand finger on the chosen note.
4) Repeat steps 1) to 3) for the left hand.
Unfortunately, when learners have been taught by someone else first (either another teacher or a family member) they may well have been playing for some time without actually being able to read the music. (Playing without reading music can be achieved surprisingly easily by the learner being told where to place his hands to start with, then following finger numbers or easy note progressions). However, there comes a point when he will really have to know his notes and – in some cases – I’ve had to take a pupil back several stages before we can make any real progress. There are no shortcuts as far as I’m concerned: if you’re taking lessons, you really do have to learn to read piano music.
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