Advice for Teachers of Beginners – Reading the Notes
There is no a priori reason why a student who plays the piano with facility should have a parallel ease in reading their notes.
I once tutored a high school junior in trigonometry. At first the process resembled peeling an onion. For each math skill that depended on her knowing a previous and more basic skill, examination showed that she was not comfortable with that simpler ability either. When we finished stripping back these layers one by one, we ended up with her being, figuratively speaking, back in the second grade, and being confused by the multiplication table. Thus, that is where we began: with the multiplication table. When she mastered that we went out one layer of the onion, and so on patiently until successfully building things back to trigonometry.
Occasionally I will get a teen-aged piano student who excels technically, rhythmically and musically, but is crippled at sight reading. Usually the student is bright, musical and has a good year. They managed to keep their teachers in the dark about not being careful about note reading. They had devised many ‘short cuts’ for knowing what note to play – many of which were far more complicated than if they had learned at an early stage to read.
Taking my cue from the experience I had with the girl learning trigonometry, I went on a search for the more specific, more basic “component” abilities on which sight reading depends. I was surprised by what some of the missing pieces were:
These are some of the questions I have learned to put to the student:
#1, Do you see that the horizontal lines across the page come in separated groups?
#2 Is there a constant number of lines within each group? Can you point out the middle of the five lines?
#3 Are there spaces between neighboring lines?
#4 Is there a way to number the lines and the spaces?
#5 Should the lines have one set of numbers and the spaces another set of numbers?
#6 Would you say that line number ‘one’ is the top one of the five lines or the one at the bottom?
#7 Would you number them differently in bass clef than treble clef*.
Each time I encountered a student who had transferred to me recently from another teacher, I got more practice ferreting out more of these (to us) obvious descriptors of what the eye sees on the page.
#1 Describe in words the difference in appearance of middle C notated in treble clef and notated in bass clef.
#2 How does one position a note on a staff?
#3 How much does the note need to move up or down for it to change its name?
#4 What does it mean for a note to be “on” a line (sitting on a line or having the line run through its middle). What does it mean for a note to be “in” a space. (does the student look at a note that I call being “in a space” and see it instead as “resting on a line?
#5 After reviewing the recycling of the white keys at the octave, then ask: if each line or space represented a “musical” letter, or how many letters are there?
#6 Can you recite these letters both forwards and backwards?
So many components to a “single” understanding of the notation system! If any one is missing or simply unclear, how much of the entire nexus of perceptual abilities remain confusing or unclear. We depend so much on our students and the tradition that what the student is trying to learn is a coherent system of related concepts and perceptions. When the student turns out to be having difficulty reading their notes, it is so easy to blame the student and trust in the a priori sensibleness of the notation system.
-+- (to start here again with the student if necessary) See below. -+-
Can the student ‘sort’ through the three following ‘pairs’ of values, so as to match one of each pair with one from the other two pairs?
#1 the left-right space of the keyboard.
#2 the up-down space of the staff,
#3 the alphabet going forwards or backwards?
If you go “up” from a C on the keyboard do you travel left or right from the C? Is the letter I get to thereby a B or a D? If the student’s answer is B, what are the possible reasons for that answer:
#1 the student knows that the direction they are to move on the keyboard has the name “to the right” but was mixed up which is their left hand which is their right hand. So part of their answer would actually be “correct”, while a second part is incorrect.
#2. The student, knowing their left from their right, has wrongly “mapped” ahead in the alphabet onto movement to the left. Again, in part their answer is “correct” but it is based on a different part than applied in case number one.
Take nothing for granted. The teacher may be ‘confused’ about the what is the student’s ‘confusion’. Try to pin down the exact nature of the confusion, then go back to square one with the student, and start over again showing the student how to associate terms together
(see above: “start here again with the student if necessary”
I did not know my left from my right until I was 11 or 12 years old. I still have trouble with it. Every time I try to describe, in one of these blogs, anything involving relationships in space, I have to check and recheck that I am describing it correctly.
If it is difficult for the student say the alphabet backwards, let alone map it onto a staff or the keyboard, start with small and easily reversible ‘chunks’ to say out loud, such as:
ABCBA then CBA
CDEDC then EDC
EFGFE then GFE
FGAGF then AGF
Here is a miscellaneous kaleidoscope of activities for students with sight reading issues, each one helping to reinforce the others, and thus best done in concert with the others:
#1 The student says out loud the name of the note they are currently playing, without having to double check the name by looking down at the keyboard and seeing where their finger is.
#2 The student describes the position on the staff of the note they are about to play.
#3 The student says things out loud like: “That’s a ‘B’ because it is on the middle line of treble clef”; “this is a Middle C because it is one line above bass clef”; etc..
#4 Make sure the student has the vocabulary to describe both what is similar and what is different about two notes that have the same letter and staff position but which have different rhythmic values.
#5 Have the student say whether the next note to be played lies “up” from the previous note, “down” from the previous note, or is the same pitch twice in a row.
#6 Have the student give the letter name for one note from a piece they are about to learn, and then ask them to go through the remainder of the score and identify all other instances of the same pitch.
#7 The teacher points to a random note in the score and asks the student to play it. This, at first, is somewhat effective in preventing the student from thinking “up” or “down” from the previous note in the score, though eventually the student will simply retain an afterimage of the previous note to which to compare the current note.
#8 Use the “Joe Bloom note reading program for PC computers”. I am happy to send you a copy. Sorry, it doesn’t work on an Apple. I am also happy to send some strategies on how to make the most effective use of it.
#9 Use the “Wright Way Note Finder”. Though I don’t think it is marketed any more, you can find them on Amazon and Ebay. Young students like turning the knob and causing the (single) note to move up and down against the background lines and spaces of treble and bass clef. This is useful to make precise the vertical positioning of a note that is in a space, or on a line; or to determine the exact point, when gradually turning the know, that the note changes its letter identity.
The student can randomly change the note and have the teacher either play or same the name of the note (or both). Doing this gives the student instant feedback to satisfy their curiosity about what changing the pitch of the note means and how it maps onto the keyboard. Plus it gives the student a sense of power and control over the teacher – always a good thing.
#10 Jumping to conclusions
Students are always looking for ‘patterns’ that will make things easier for them and cut down on the amount of mental effort that goes into figuring out the identity of first one and then another in a stream of notes. For instance, in a measure of 4/4 times there are four quarter notes. The first three are moving up the staff step-wise. The fourth note has the same pitch as the third. The student is inclined to think that the “solution” to the problem is to find the unifying concept or pattern that applies to all the notes, and assumes the fourth note is a step higher than the third. Another example would be in a piece that repeats a four bar phrase identically except for one note alteration.
#11 One of two ways to use note-flash-cards. Put two or more cards in a line from left to right, all in the same clef, each one being a position higher than the one to its left. Tell the student to watch closely because the teacher is going to rearrange the order of the cards, after which it is the student’s job to return them to their original order. Start by switching the leftmost and rightmost cards, and do it with exaggerated physical gestures. At this point the student may garner all the necessary information simply by watching the physical movements of the teacher. Then start mutually exchanging the positions of two cards, starting with cards that are adjacent, and eventually any two randomly chosen cards. By the time you have finished this phase of the process the student most likely will have developed an intuitive understanding of the criteria for ordering the cards. Then, one can do more complicated shuffling of positions: among 3 cards, 4 etc.. It is not necessary to keep track of what criteria the student is using to restore the original order among the cards; it is sufficient that the rearrangements get, gradually, more and more complex, and entail more and more cards.
#12 Another and more elaborate and robust way to use flash-cards. Allthe cards are spread out in an random arrangement on a flat surface. The student is asked to pick two at random. Inform the student of the identity of each. Then hide them momentarily, randomize their order, then show them one at a time and ask the student to name the note.
Then begins a process by which, one at a time, new cards are added to the ‘deck’. With the addition of each new card, the ‘deck’ is shuffled and the cards shown to the student one at a time for identification.
Before adding the next new card to the deck, the cards that are currently in the deck should be reshuffled a number of times (more times when the there are more cards). With each shuffle the same cards appear but in a different order. This prevents the student from memorizing the order of the cards. When enough shuffles have occurred, the student chooses the next card to add to the deck.
By letting the student shuffle the deck each time before going through the cards again, and by letting the student choose the next card to add to the deck, the student is ‘controlling’ what notes they are learning.
Each time the student chooses a new card for the deck, the teacher tells them what the new note is.
As the student becomes more proficient at this ‘game’, the teacher can control how long the student can look at the next card in the deck before giving an answer. For instance, if the student takes longer than a second to identify the note, the teacher can provide the answer for the student, without implying that anything negative is happening. This is a way of steering the student away from “figuring it out”, instead of instantly recognizing the note from its clef and staff position.
Please let me know if you want me to post more teaching ideas for beginners learning their notes.
* If the student has learned their notes starting with middle C and radiating out in both directions, it is not uncommon for the student to call the bottom line of treble clef “line number one”, and the top line of bass clef, again, as “line number one”.
5 Shorter Blogs on General Technique and Jazz
How to start a run (#1). Scales can help us execute arpeggios and vice versa (#2). Symmetric motions in the hands (#4) Jazz improvisation (#4). A deeper meaning to a group of notes (#5)
#1 How to start a run
It’s the second note that precisely defines the tempo of the run.
How quickly does a listener determine the tempo of a piece. Not by the first note, but they can judge the tempo by hearing the first two notes. It is the precise duration from the beginning of the first note to the beginning of the second note that is the clue. This proves to be important for the pianist when starting a run, a scale, etc., any series of notes that are all share the same rhythmic value. If we are careful to play the second note at exactly the right moment after the first note, then we know what precise duration to give to each of the notes follow.
#2 Using arpeggios to help play scales, and vice versa.
When I am playing a scale, and it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play instead an arpeggio starting on the tonic note of the scale.
For instance, instead of: C D E F G A B c
I play C E G c
If at that point, without any time taken off in between, I play the scale again, the scale sounds more evenly and controlled.
The arpeggio in effect seems like a scale that has been sped up. I just have to fill parenthetically the notes the arpeggio left out.
The reverse situation applies as well. When I am playing an arpeggio, if it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play stead a scale whose tonic is implied tonic in the arpeggio.
For instance, instead of: C E G c
I play C D E F G A B c
This slows down the arpeggio because I am filling in the notes between the notes of the arpeggio. It now takes longer to get from one note of the arpeggio to the next. I just have be aware of the notes that I’m leaving. Especially the interval is more than a third, as well as when I bring over thumb, or come under the thumb.
#3 Mirror motions. The “target hand” and the “helping hand”
The body is freest and happiest when the two bilateral side of the body (the arms in particular) are moving in opposite directions. The physical sensation in the arm when moving away from the a central position (I.E. rightwards with the right hand, leftwards with the left hand) is different than the physical sensation in the arm when moving towards a central position (I.E. leftwards with the right hand, rightwards with the left hand). The body is happier when the two sensations are more alike. This is one of the reason that scales played in opposite motion in two hands seems easier than the usual practice of both hands moving rightwards, or both hands moving leftwards.
One hand helps the other: the helping hand and the “target” hand
In my playing, if I feeling awkward playing a passage or group of notes in the right hand, In what follows the right hand is the “target” hand and the left hand is the “helping” hand. The situation can be reversed if one is having difficulty with a passage in the left hand.
I will take the helping hand and move it in the empty space above the keyboard in a course that is a mirror image of the the directions that the right hand is going. It goes leftwards when the target hand goes rightwards, It goes rightwards when the target hand goes leftwards. As i said, the helping hand traces in empty space, just above the keyboard, the mirror motion of the target hand.
After doing this for a brief time, I go back to having the helping hand play the notes indicated for it in the score. The helping hand can retain the sensations of trying to mirror the target hand even though it is restrained from doing it fully by the notes it has to play that are in the score. But that doesn’t stop it from “trying” to start making such motions to mirror the other. Muscles can contract as if attempting a motion in one direction even if the hand at the same time busy playing notes that go in a different direction.
#4. Jazz improvisation
Not stopping the flow of notes every once in a while simply because you are not sure where to go to next.
During one year I had a jazz pianist come for lessons. He thought he would gain some additional perspectives on jazz by working with a classically trained teacher.
At first I showed stuff about classical music. It went OK. However, then I decided that it would be more interesting to work with him while he was improvising. My absence of technical knowledge in jazz would not prevent me from evaluating his improvisation on more general musical grounds such as sound, musicality, and motion.
I asked him to improvise for me on a standard tune. What I noticed was that when he would begin to play a series of rapid notes, after a certain number of notes went by he paused, but then went on. The pause to me always sounded artificial: not done for a musical reasons. I was curious to determine whether the pause was for stylistic reasons or occurred because his fingers were momentarily ‘stumped’ as to what to do next. It turned out to be the latter. Ideally he would have preferred continuing the series of notes in the improvisation.
I invented a curious exercise, one that is good for classical as well as jazz pianists. I had him wiggle his fingers rapidly in the air and simply do so without stopping. That set up the notion that the note-stream does not ever need to stop. The next step was to bring that finger motion to the keyboard and to play random notes. The notes need not have any musical significance. It was purely for him to get used to the idea that it was technically possible to generate an indefinite series of notes. In the last stage he applied that technique to improvising on a standard melody and, every time he was on the verge of stopping because he hadn’t yet figured out the following notes, he was to use stage two and to continue playing notes they were random notes. This opened up for him the possibility of creating a stream of fast notes at any speed, one that would last as long as he chose.
#5. A deeper meaning to a group of notes.
Sometimes it is not enough for me to play through a group of notes, just once, a part of a theme or a motive. It is as if I am taking a cursory swipe at what I think is contained in those notes: looking especially for something that is consistent with all the notes around it. But with repeated swipes I begin to unmask what is really going on in that group of notes. And that something is often easily glossed-over by me to make it seem like it is just another neutral, undifferentiated part of the whole nexus of notes of which it is a part.
By the second or third time I repeat the target group of notes (usually anywhere from 2 – 8 notes), I begin to see that it has a life of its own, one that is easily submerged in the general flow of the measure. Would I be encouraging anarchy on the part of those notes to give special care to bring out its authentic properties independently of what the rest of the surrounding passage is trying to state musically.
The answer I find is usually that bringing out the individuality of a group of notes, based on its shape, rhythm and harmonic implications, only adds, and does not detract, from the general flow of the piece; that it enriches meaning in the passage and not goes off on a tangent.
One way of avoiding repetitive stress on the fingers
I believe that the ability of the fingers to move in one plane of action (up and down) is abetted by its being free and able to move in other planes as. Once in a while I’m practicing, when I momentarily run out of ideas what to do, I will, turn my hand upside down and I will extend rather than curl my fingers while trying to make the finger tips cause sounds on the piano. It is but a moment’s diversion.
Another time, I might spend a few moments focusing on the lateral motion of my fingers. Here is the series of steps: 1) lay a flat, closed hand on piano. 2) separate two adjacent fingers, say fingers two and three. 3) have the third finger move laterally in the third knuckle until it can play a note that is located where the 2nd finger is. and vice versa.
Here’s something to try that is half way between a right side up hand and a hand turned upside down. I turn the hand sideways, either pinkie down or thumb down. We’ll take thumb down first. The thumb, which is now the ‘lowest’ part of the hand, is extended downwards toward the keyboard and away from the other fingers, and tries to make a sound on the keyboard. Then I attempt to do something similar with the other fingers. These seconds’ long exercises can be done with either hand as well as with the hand turned pinkie down, so that it is the pinkie that first tries to extend down and away from the other fingers to try to make a sound.
Another way of going about freeing up the muscles in the fingers is to use one hand to hold onto a finger in the other hand, so that the latter finger can move only from the first knuckle; later the second knuckle; or the third knuckle. Usually all three knuckles take part in the flexion of the finger when making a sound (although the first knuckle a lot less than the others); so it is interesting to separate apart these “partial” motions and then putting them back together.
Special moments at a lesson
Special moments during a lesson. “Artistic Time” and “Everyday Time”
Rachael is taking a lesson.
I have come to realize that the times when I am most useful to the student is while they are in the midst of playing; not after they have come to a pause. Once the student has stepped back out of the river of time that flows when sounding the piece, it will be too late for her to take my feedback and transplant back into the living flow of sounds she created, where it will do the most good.
The time to strike is in medias res – in the midst of things. The student is then in what I call the “artistic time the flow of ” and not in the flow of what, in contrast, I call “everyday time”. When the stops playing, or a few moments later (although it can be much longer) she simply switches realities, and is back in the everyday. The transition is so automatic that usually the person does not know it is happening: “oh, there is piano again in front of me; there’s Joe again sitting by my side; there’s that awful looking chair he’s sitting in …”. But most of all — there’s “me” again, someone sitting on a piano bench: for if we are immersed in the artistic flow of time we may easily forget where we are, who we are, or even that we are. While playing all that seems to exist is the sound of the music.
During the artistic time the student is in an altered state. If there were a special “artistic-time-clock” available, she would notice it was set to zero when she starts playing, and then continues to marks off time during the duration of her playing. It stops a moment or a longer after she stops playing. At that point she looks at the real clock on the wall, and gets re-synchronized with the time flow of the real world: Oh, it’s 1:30, time for lunch.
The relation of these two times, “artistic” and “everyday”, is expressed by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay at the beginning of the “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”:
“Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace, … ”
Art (and I might say nature too) has the ability of putting the person into the flow of artistic time, who then may stay in it for a period of minutes, hours, or longer.
If I can join her in the artistic time, what I do or say has a good chance of being absorbed into the fabric of that artistic time, and of staying in that time whenever she plays.
Related to this, there are also brief moments during a lesson, when the teacher can speak directly into the innermost recesses of the student psyche. Moments like these do not occur at every lesson. I can best describe it as something that arises as an unforeseen crack in the fabric of time. A moment later and that opening usually seals over.
The teacher has to alert to when and if such an opening occurs. Something is said or done inside the lesson, that unexpectedly causes the student to let down all the shields and defenses, leaving them open for a moment to new ideas. At such a moment the teacher can carefully and compassionately say something that the teacher has, for some time past, been careful not to say to the student: things that hover near where the student’s personality and musicality intersect.
To take advantage of such a moment, the teacher has to be fine-tuned to the student during the lesson, and remain so as continuously as possible.
A subliminal way of providing music theory information to the student
Today’s incarnation of “Irving”* is playing the C Major Prelude from book one of the W.T.C. I’m bringing up the subject of chords probably for the first time.
The harmonic-rhythm of the piece (the rate at which the chords change) is slow and even paced; the chords change only when measure changes. It leaves me ample time to say to him casually, as he playing: “this is now a C major chord”; “this is a now D Minor-7 chord”; this is a G Major Chord, etc..
I do not assume he will understand the bigger part of what I am saying, but it is more at creating a subliminal background to what he is playing. Much like those once fashionable “learn while you are sleeping” tapes. So, even if all he gets are the things listed below, that is more than enough: 1) There is something called a chord and apparently I’m playing first one then another; 2) that these chords apparently come in a wide variety of types; 3) but one can identify these types based solely on the notes I am playing. He is getting used to hearing the terms I am using, terms like “major”, “minor”, “7-chord”.
It can be an advantage that he does not have to stop the flow of his playing in order to try to understand what these terms mean. He may know no more than that the terms change in a way that, at this point, almost seem to vary in a patterned way with the sounds he is making. Each time I use them in the future there will be a growing sense on his part what they mean and how to use them.
* I promise to give Irving a new name one of these days.