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Sharps and Flats
Sharp signs are first introduced in a Green Book piece called The Dragon (flats are used a few pieces later). When I explain the meaning of a sharp note, I make a point of using the phrase: ‘a semitone higher’ which, I add, means ‘one note higher’ and I take great pains to explain that this does not necessarily mean ‘a black note’ (although of course it generally does).
I will then demonstrate this by asking the pupil to play an E♯ on the piano. Very few have done this successfully – most either play an E♭ or an F♯. The idea of this is not to belittle them because they’ve got it wrong, but to make them realise that notes on the piano can have more than one name (e.g. B can also be called C♭; G♯ is the enharmonic equivalent of A♭ etc.)
Some pupils are uncomfortable with this – they think each note should have only one name. It can be helpful to liken the relationship between two notes to a real life situation. If a pupil asks: “How can an F♯ also be a G♭?” I might answer: “In the same way that I can be both a mother and a daughter.”
Key signatures are also introduced around this stage. Most children don’t seem to understand that a piece is written in a particular key: I usually briefly explain this by playing the scale and pointing out that some notes are sharps or flats otherwise the scale would sound odd (which again, I demonstrate by, for example starting a scale on D and playing only white notes).
Beats in a Bar
Counting the beats in the bar is something which, on the whole, seems to present fewer problems than reading the pitch of the notes – certainly in the early stages.
However, there is a tendency to see rhythm as being less important than pitch. I try to dispel this myth as early as possible – usually by playing the notes of a very simple, well-known, piece such as Old Macdonald had a Farm but with a totally random rhythm. Most learners fail to recognise the tune and are amazed when I replay exactly the same notes but with the correct rhythm.
Even for learners with a natural sense of rhythm, I feel it’s important to actually count the numbers of the beats out loud. This helps them to fully understand the concept of note values and the idea that you can be counting a beat without actually playing a new note. I particularly enforce this idea for sight-reading – many have a vague sense of holding some notes for ‘a bit longer’ but unless they actually count the beats out loud they may not be playing exactly in time.
Ideally, they should also ‘count in’ before they start playing – and be certain that they’re playing at the same speed as they counted in: this skill can take a while to acquire.
I encourage time-keeping practices such as nodding the head or tapping the foot – or sometimes I’ll help by tapping a pencil on the table myself – anything to encourage the sense of a steady beat.
An explanation of the metronome is introduced early on in The Red Book (the second book in the John W. Schaum series) in a piece called Crunchy Flakes (the tune of which sounds like Jingle Bells – annoyingly inappropriate for 11 months of the year) and I always show learners my own – very old – metronome and let them try to play along with it (generally just with the right hand to make the task easier, as at this point I’m not interested in whether they’re reading the notes correctly – just in whether they can keep an even beat).
However, apart from that, I rarely use this device either for teaching or for my own use as I find the ticking sound distracting and annoying. (Very occasionally I may set my metronome to check if I’m playing a piece at the right speed. Or, I may use it to ensure I’m playing a difficult rhythm correctly: if I haven’t got it quite right, the ‘ding’ will not fall on the first beat of the next bar).
If you’re interested, you can purchase a metronome at Musicroom.com or from Amazon UK/Amazon US. Alternatively, you may prefer to download an App onto your phone. As I’m a total techno-phobe I wouldn’t know where to start with this.
Pausing at Barlines
One of the most common early mistakes, as far a rhythm is concerned, is pausing at bar-lines. This is sometimes caused by the nature of the early pieces which tend to have a right-hand melody against a simple left-hand accompaniment of only one note per bar – generally played on the first beat. This means that the greatest challenge for the pianist always comes at the beginning of the bar, where he has both left and right-hand notes to read, whereas the rest of the bar is fairly simple, causing a tendency to play notes later on in the bar a lot quicker.
I try to correct this mistake firstly by explaining that there is no bigger gap between notes which cross over bar-lines than there is between notes in a bar. I then encourage the learner to replay the tune with the right hand only and listen carefully to the way it flows on – not just between bars but from one line to the next as well.
Playing with one hand is a valuable exercise in any case – certainly when the learner is starting a new piece. Often I’ll start by asking him to play the left hand while I do the right (usually an octave higher so I’m not ‘in his way’). I prefer to let him start with the left as this is generally considered the least interesting part (and therefore least likely to be practised) and it also gives him an opportunity to hear how the melody should sound before attempting it himself. (As I mentioned earlier, I prefer learners not to rely too much on ‘copying’ as I want them to focus on reading the notes but I don’t feel one playing of the right-hand while they’re concentrating on the left will do any harm).
Then I’ll ask him to play the right on its own and either set the piece as a ‘separate hands only’ task to be practised at home or – in most cases – let him try it hands together.
Spot the Note
To re-affirm an understanding of how to read music, I often end the early lessons with some ‘note-spotting’.
To check if he’s remembered what I’ve taught him about rhythm, I’ll hand the learner a pencil and say: “point with the tip of the pencil to a note worth two beats” and then: “what sort of note is that?” Sometimes I’ll need to explain that I’m not asking for a letter-name, I just want the pupil to tell me the word for a note worth two beats (i.e. ‘minim’).
The word most learners struggle with is ‘semibreve’. I sometimes get around this by asking what sort of house they live in and if – as in many cases – it’s semi-detached, they at least know the start of the word. Most of them have little trouble with ‘quavers’ (due, of course, to a well-known savoury snack sold in the UK).
Finally, to check his understanding of reading different pitches, I’ll ask him to point to a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ or a ‘G’ – sometimes specifying an ‘F’ in the bass clef or a ‘G’ above middle C.