The thing that strikes most fear into learners is not sitting at the piano or the playing of the notes but the reading of the music. Children, in particular, will – generally subconsciously – try to avoid this at all cost. Rather than attempting to read notes, they will try desperately hard to remember them – either from hearing their teacher play the tune (although in my case, I don’t necessarily give them this opportunity) or from a previous attempt of their own.
So many children turn up at the lesson saying: “I didn’t practise this one because I couldn’t remember it.” I patiently explain (for the sixteenth time) that they don’t need to remember the piece – the only thing they need to remember is their note-reading skills.
Others, rather than trying to remember either the piece or their note-reading skills, will make guesses – occasionally accurate ones, maybe thanks to a musical ear.
Of course, making use of a ‘musical ear’ should always be encouraged – and even those to which this comes less naturally should be taught to listen to what they’re playing and learn to recognise when it sounds ‘wrong’. (Sadly, some seem unable to do this and – even in the later stages – fail to hear such ‘obvious’ errors as missing sharps or flats).
However, in most cases, I teach beginners to use their reading skills first and their listening skills only as a ‘back-up’.
More Questions Than Answers
Many who struggle with reading the music will turn to their teacher and expect to be told which note to play. If their teacher happens to be me, I’m afraid they’re in for a disappointment. (I must admit, I tend to feel my patience waning when young learners constantly turn their head to look at my face for help or reassurance – mainly because, when they turn back again, it then takes them ages to find both where they were up to in the music and where their hands were positioned).
I will rarely tell the pupil either the name of a note or where to find it on the piano (except when shortage of time is an issue). Instead, I will ask questions such as: “Does the note look higher or lower than the previous one? … Is the note on a line or in a space? Does it look like any of the notes you’ve already played? Can you find a middle C on this page? Is that note higher or lower than middle C? … What comes before C in your alphabet? … Which way is ‘down’ on the piano? …” and so on, until I feel I’ve hit on the recognition method which they find the most useful. The aim here is to encourage the pupil to ask himself similar questions at home and to look out for ‘clues’ as to the name of the note and where to find it on the piano.
As I outlined in the article ‘First Piano Lesson’ – in the early days, I ask pupils to practise saying or singing the letter names as they play, then to re-play the piece counting the beats in the bar (out loud).
In the case of learning the names of the notes, there are various methods which can help. In the earliest pieces in John W. Schaum Pre-A The Green Book it’s relatively easy for the learner who knows his alphabet well as the notes go up or down in sequence.
For those who struggle with their alphabet, the most common problem is confusing ‘Bs’ and ‘Ds’. (In many cases this will apply not only to note-reading but to reading or writing words as well). I suggest that when they look at C and D on the piano they think of a ‘CD player’ to help remember that the D comes after, rather than before, the C.
On a Line Or In a Space
The first piece to present a bit of a challenge to many is The Wind Sock as here the first note in the right hand is E rather than middle C. To help identify this, the learner can be encouraged to look at the previous page to find a similar note in the piece he’s just learned. Or, he can be shown that just as middle C is ‘on a line’ (I encourage learners to think of middle C in this way rather than that is ‘has a line going through it’ … although most of them still insist on saying the latter), the next note D is ‘in a space’ and the next one up – E – is on a line again – so the notes alternate between being ‘on a line’ and ‘in a space’.
This also helps with Mr Frog is Full of Hops – a piece which many pupils struggle with, as some – although not all – of the notes go up and down in twos rather than following on. I explain that when going from a line to a space you’re going up or down one note (in this piece at least) and from a space to another space, up or down two. Youngsters tend to ignore this and make guesses instead.
To avoid the learner picking up the piece through memory rather than reading, I will occasionally say ‘stop’ as he hits a note and ask him to point to the note he’s playing on the page. If he’s unable to do this, we’ll go back to a previous note which he is able to recognise and I’ll ask him to follow my pencil with his eyes and only play the next note when my pencil has reached it.
Many pupils fail to read notes because they’re too busy looking at their hands. Merely telling them not to do so, rarely has any effect so, instead, I let them find their starting position, encourage them to imagine ‘glued’ fingertips and then cover their hands with another book held a few centimetres above their fingers. They often realise that they actually play more accurately when their hands are covered and lose their position less frequently than expected.
A Note’s a Note, a Finger’s a Finger!
Even a learner who copes well in the early stages, sometimes flounders when he has to move his hands around. For many, the association between – for example – the note D and the first finger of his right hand has become so strong that when I hold up the index finger of my right hand and say: “What’s this?” he confidently answers: “It’s a D!” “No!” I say: “… it’s a finger!!” I then show him how any finger of either hand can play absolutely any note at all on the piano and should never be referred to as a letter name.
Interestingly, these same learners will look at a note written on the stave and forget all about letter names – instead referring to the note as a number – or a possessive pronoun followed by a number: “Is that my number 3?”
“No!” I shout (or at least say rather loudly) – “it’s not anybody’s number! That is a note with its own very special name – he’s called ‘E’ and I think he’d appreciate it if you’d call him that in future. Everyone likes to be called by their name. I don’t think you’d like it if you turned up for a lesson and I said ‘hello seven’ would you?’.” Sometimes the teacher has to ‘go off on one’ to get his point across!
Most learners feel very disorientated when the hands start to move away from the original position with thumbs on middle C. I taught one young boy recently who was so shocked that his left hand would be playing an octave lower than usual that he described the new hand position as: “totally insane!” and fell about laughing.
“Is It There?”
I find a lot of learners will look at a new piece and frantically move their hands along the keys, looking up at me occasionally and saying anxiously: “Is it there? … “Or is it there? … whoops, no, I mean there?” When I don’t respond immediately they obviously assume they’re ‘in the wrong place’. This isn’t necessarily the case – it’s just that I’m trying to find my inner calm before responding as “Is it there?” is one of my pet hates.
At this point, (when my patience has returned) I explain that there is a very simple method for working out where your hands should be to start with and it’s far more reliable than just flapping about moving them up and down the keys.
The first step is to read the first note to be played by the right hand (or the left hand in cases where this starts the piece). In order to do this, various methods can be used. Most people know where middle C would be written in relation to the stave so it’s easy enough to count on from this.
Alternatively, the pupil can use mnemonics which – if he’s competent enough – can be much quicker. For the notes in the treble clef spaces, remember that they spell the word ‘FACE’ going from top to bottom. (I usually mention this for the first time when the learner reaches the piece The Funny Bunny in The Green Book as this is where the unfamiliar C above middle C is introduced).
Most pupils grasp this idea straight away, although I recently taught one girl who was confused that FACE had to be read from bottom to top rather than top to bottom as you might expect to read a word (for example, on a poster). However, once she realised that she had to remember to read in a strange way, she was fine with it.
(continued on next page …)
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