A Few Thoughts About Satie’s “Gnossiennes”
S.B. is in love with the Satie Gnossiennes. He is learning the first four.
When he had a long string of the triplet notes, I tried to push him ahead as if I wanted him to go faster. Notwithstanding, he successfully resisted the impulses I conveyed. But, the combination of my push and his resistance (with the flow of the tempo) resulted in a perfect union of not speeding up on the clock but still having a feeling to the listener of moving ahead.
And the same thing for any other musical ‘feeling’ that you have about the piece. Inject that feeling like you are injecting into the inside of a turkey with a “solution” prior to cooking. The flavor remains on the inside, but the cooking ‘metronome’ continues to tick evenly.
The little differences. Satie is creating a severely controlled universe, a minimalistic universe. Satie wants to draw the listener in until they are sensitive to every slight difference amid the hypnotic flow of the notes. For instance at one point, instead of a twelve note series of triplets, it is fifteen notes.* Or, this time it was an A-natural and not an A-flat. And things like this.
The melody is filled with repeating notes. First play it without repeating any of the notes, then switch to repeating them, but be very “annoyed” that something, some outside force, is making you, as it were redundantly, to have to play each note twice. Once established at the beginning, never loose that initial feeling of annoyance as you go through a string of these note repetitions. If it helps, say out loud or to yourself in a nagging tone of voice: “do it twice … do it twice … , or “do I have to do this note twice also … do I have to do this note twice as well … and this note … “.
Because it happens so often, your inner musician will constantly want to assert itself to make it sound ‘better’, more ‘natural’. You will start giving a phrase or shape to the notes in order to avoid the starkness of the repetition of each note. It is hard for you to play through the whole piece as we have described because you are so sensitive and may think that what you are hearing is in some way ugly. At such times just consciously make it ‘uglier’. Make each note ‘stutter’.
Turning off a natural ability.
No note in the left hand ‘bears the memory’ of what preceded it, though it is natural to hear a group of notes as outlining a particular tonal chord. If there is a D minor chord in the left hand at the beginning it’s “news to me”. Perhaps I’ll come to realize it after it’s almost done.
This is very difficult to do: suppressing a natural conscious reaction. It would be like advancing a film one frame at a time, looking at it for a while, and then a long pause between the end of the first frame and the beginning of the next to allow some of the short term memory to forget what the preceding frame looked like.
* Try to frustrate the listener because there is a group of notes, and then something else, and then another group of notes. Make the listener upset as to why there were only n number of notes and then it stopped, and then, why did we have to wait before that flow notes resumed, and not being sure how for how long, for how many notes, that flow of notes will continue this time.
Six short blogs about Beethoven’s “Andante Favori” in F Major
#1. Key Signatures
Some advanced students have trouble changing from one key signature to another, even when they are finished playing one piece and are starting to play another. The previous sharps and/or flats in the previous piece’s key signature “bleed over”, or persist into the next piece. For this type of student it is not enough to suggest that they practice scales and get to know key signatures. One has to reach back further in time to re-build conscious awareness of keys. Using just one hand, and just one finger from the hand, have the student play, very slowly, one octave’s worth of a scale. As each note is played the student should say out loud the name of the note being played. This has less to do with teaching the hand what notes are in the scale and was more about raising to a high state of conscious awareness the “name” of each note.
Only two preliminaries were required to begin this procedure for the major scales in particular:
review of: whole-whle-half-whole-whole-whole-half
the “law of the alphabet”: that each letter in the musical alphabet must show up once in the scale. The letters should appear, in order and without any omission or doubling.
#2. The use of “Least Common Denominators” to gain control of rhythmic details.
Counting “beats” out loud is often as difficult as it is unhelpful to straightening out rhythm details. It is better to “count” the passage of one of the shorter rhythmic values. J.M. is having difficulty counting the rhythm: dotted sixteenth – thirty second – eighth – eighth. This appears at the beginning of the Beethoven Andante Favori. Instead of using a counting-ruler that was marked in eighth notes we used a ruler marked in thirty-second notes, four of which equaled one of the eighth notes.
J.M was not used to counting out loud. She would encounter these obstacles. 1) She couldn’t coordinate doing two things at once, playing a rhythm, and saying a counting. Even getting the voice to begin speaking while the fingers were playing was difficult. One took attention away from the other and both would suffer. 2) when she did have her voice and her fingers activated together, the voice tended to follow any inaccuracy in her fingers’ playing of the rhythm. The fingers were leading the mouth, so to speak. For counting out loud to work, the voice must take a higher priority than the fingers, so much so that eventually the sounds themselves appeared merely as shadows of what the voice was doing.* They were entirely under dictates of the voice**. 3). Understanding that what we were counting was not ‘counts’ (I.E. beats), that we were actually counting repeating groups of four thirty-second notes. That we chose thirty-second notes because 1/32 is the least common denominator if one wants to add together 1/2-s, 1/4-s, 1/8-s, 1/16-s, 1/32-s, and dotted versions of all but the last.***
* I said to J.M.: The louder you say the numbers out loud the better the fingers will cease trying to dictate things to the body and the more the voice takes control so that the notes arrive with the counts. Also the louder you count out loud the more likely you will notice if there is any unevenness in the way your voice is counting.
** To form a bridge or meeting place between never having counted while playing and doing so competently, as she played the opening notes of the piece I played the notes of the melody an octave higher but I repeated the same note as 2 or more thirty-second notes when the note in the melody was a sixteenth or longer. As I did this I was using my voice to encourage her voice by my counting the thirty seconds out loud (1 2 3 4). By relying on following both the notes I was playing and saying the counts I was saying, she broke through the barrier of merging counting and playing.****
*** Funny thing about me and least common denominators. In grade school I used to think that the phrase least common denominator, meant least-common denominator, and not least common-denominator. For instance 1/4s seemed to have too much in common with 1/2s to be the least common denominator for the two of them. Perhaps something less common, like a 1/16th or a 1/32nd. I used the term correctly but always with a bit of puzzlement in my mind.
**** I noticed that I changed the inflection of my voice depending on whether she was holding an eighth note, or playing a dotted sixteenth and a thirty second. In the first case my word ‘one’ was the loudest syllable, and the other three drifted off quieter (though still promptly on time). Sort of like as if I were taking the 2 3 4 for granted. In the second case, after putting a certain emphasis on the word ‘one’, I made a crescendo in my voice through the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ as if handing to her, or pointing the way to the word ‘four’.
#3. A tricky rhythm in measure 47.
This is a place where the right hand basically enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second there are the places in the piece where the right hand enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second, but also pauses for two-thirty seconds in between the end of one two note group and the beginning of the next.
I said that many pianists had difficulty with enunciating this correctly (as do certain orchestra conductors in similar sections of works like the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor.
Why is it difficult? Because when we play two consecutive notes of a scale rapidly, followed by no further note, the first one tends to act like a grace note to the second, with the result that the second gains an emphasis defined the former. But this is rhythmically incorrect. It is not the second which should be emphasized. If anything it is the first note with the second tapering off form it.
#4. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.
Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used. As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.
I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire in repeated groups of four each time by my applying force from a different location along the arm. I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space. I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow. I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wags the dog”).
The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds was underneath of the ridge of the wrist. I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist. Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.
To help her along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist. I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.
#5. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.
Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used. As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.
I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire arm in repeated groups, and switching where I was applying my force from group to another. I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space. I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow. I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wagging the dog”).
The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds. This spot was ridge of her wrist. I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist. Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.
To help this along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist. I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.
#6. In measure 41, a note held in one voice is interrupted, mid stream, by the same note sounding in a second voice.
Here is a brief example of when one voice of several moves onto the same note that is already being held by another voice. It occurs one sixteenth note into the measure. The middle voice has an eighth note g4 on beat one. One sixteenth note into that beat, the bottom voice sounds the same g4 for one thirty-second note. The issue, with all such situations, is how to allow the two voices to stay sonically independent of one another.
This is the series of steps through time required to keep the voices separate.
Step 1: start the eighth note g4 in the right hand.
Step 2: immediately before it is time for the left hand to play the same g4, the right hand partially or completely lifts the g4 key, so that, an instant later…
Step 3: the left hand can begin the thirty-second note g4.
Step 4: during the duration of this thirty-second note, the right hand silently takes over for the left hand on the g4.
Step 5: after the thirty second note has passed, the right hand goes on holding down the g4 key till the end of the eighth note.
#5. measure 141 for example: a rapid melody in octaves in one hand, in particular a smaller hand.
Because of her small hand, I suggested to J.M. that regardless of how brief each octave is, she not hold onto it its full duration but release before her hand had an opportunity to seize-up, or tried to maintain hold of the octaves by a gripping action.
As a preliminary exercise I asked her to flex the joints in her pinkie and her thumb that are not usually actively flexed when playing octaves. Just hold out her right hand in front of her, and slowly flex, back and forth, the first knuckle of the pinkie and the first knuckle of the thumb. Feel like those fingers are growing in length, and have become like fronds of a sea plant that are being stirred by gentle currents in the water. Then, when playing the passage, try not to loose the feeling that these joints are actively flexing while one octave is being held – even if they are not so doing. This virtual flexion in the first knuckles is not to be used to push the two keys down to sound the octave, but should occur independently of when and how we activate the keys.
The Effectiveness of Repetition
S.B. came for his weekly lesson yesterday. He is an intermediate student. The piece we worked on was Beethoven’s Six Variations in G Major on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Paisiello.
Historically, S.B. has often not had the patience to repeat a passage as often as would lead him to experience confidence in playing that passage. Rather, he gets to a point where he thinks that he has played it often enough that the passage should already be going better, and is then discouraged that it is not getting better faster. This derails his internal process of mastering the piece.
Joe: “We need to overhaul your practicing habits. I would summarize the changes that are necessary as follows:
1) shorten the chunk size that you repeat in practicing until it is mastered.
2) use a touch that demonstrates a high level of confidence rather than a touch which suggests uncertainty about the notes.
3) adjust downwards your practicing tempo to support greater accuracy.
4) increase somewhat your tolerance for playing more repetitions of a group of notes as a prerequisite for attaining the degree of confidence that you deserve when playing those notes.
These four things are all tied together, the success of each depends on the all four being observed. The failure of the passage to proceed smoothly even after a lot of practicing may not be due not to any fundamental inability, but something more subtle: a slight misalignment among the four factors listed above. Currently you arrive at the conclusion “that I should be playing the piece better by now” but you may be speaking a bit too prematurely. First work on equalizing the four factors above Not by a lot but by just enough to assure further progress towards the goal of playing the passage with confidence and accuracy. Rather than being a scenario for discouragement, it is just tweaking the four variables until things come into focus. Instead of an un-crosable barrier, it’s just a habit in your way of practicing that needs a modest adjustment. It is then just a matter of equalizing the variables so that their values are more in accord with one another. Instead of coming up against a perennial state of defeat in each This failure in confidence with regard to having the ability to play new piece, you will feel a steady stream of modest gains.
More about the four variables:
#1. Definition of “chunk” size. How far do you go in the piece playing the same notes again? Do you go from start of the movement to its conclusion? Do you focus in on a smaller group of measures? Perhaps just one measure? Perhaps even just part of a single measure? If you keep experimenting with shorter ‘chunk sizes’ you will inevitably come to one that is of the right size to ensure a sense of mastery over the notes it contains when you choose to repeat those notes, a second time, a third time, etc..
#2. “Confidence” is a subjective emotion. Some of us are bound by ethics to play in a way that sounds confident only if indeed we have mastered the passage. I have found, with many students, that simply acting confident often increases the accuracy of the next iteration of the passage. We didn’t have to earn the privilege of feeling confident. We are like an actor, who is real life lacks confidence, but has undertaken a role in a play of someone who has extreme confidence. In such a case sounding confident is only a matter of acting. The gods are not standing in the wings waiting to punish the actor for such hubris.
S. gave a curious reason why his touch might be less even: he thought that the result would be mechanical sounding and not musical. I suggested that at this stage, prioritize confidence over musicality. The goal of playing more musically may be coming in too early in your process of learning a passage. I propose you first want to get an even layer of notes, and then you can start allowing it to vary according to taste (it’s the part of the recipe that says “now salt and pepper to taste” – which of course may be the most crucial step).
#3. Experiment with the balance between tempo and note accuracy. It is possible that you have chosen a tempo that you think should lead to an accurate and confident rendition of the passage, only to be discouraged when you encounter difficulties with the passage in spite of the chosen tempo. This requires a tweaking in the tempo. Continue to gradually slow it down, and usually sooner, rather than later, you will find a match between the tempo and the accuracy of the results.
#4. Concomitant with the other adjustments you may need to increase you tolerance for repetition, but not by a lot, a minor adjustment is often all the is necessary to open the gateway to accuracy.
To summarize, chances are that the four variables is only slightly out of quilter with each other. A major adjustment is not necessary. For instance you do not need to increase dramatically your tolerance for repetition. Often the new setting for each variable is close to the old one; that only a subtle adjustment to bring the four factors into balance with each other.
Over the course of the hour lesson, there were other things we incorporated into the new practicing procedure. When repeating the same passage trick the hand into playing somewhat faster without its noticing that it is doing that. Repeat the process as long as you can sustain the illusion.
Or, saying the names of the notes in your right hand as you are playing them. This raises to a higher level of awareness the identity of the notes in the passage. Or, saying out loud or to yourself your intent to play a certain notes, then pause a very brief amount of time, and then play that note as if to say “I always keep my word.”
We put these principles into practice at the lesson, which turned into a ‘practicing’ session that lasted a full hour, an hour that went by quickly and with a constant stream of self validation. At the end of the lesson I ventured my opinion that: I don’t think you encountered the same boredom factor, from doing things over and over again, that you might usually experience at home when practicing. If you can raise the duration of the practicing of the repetitions, so as to coincide with what you can achieve, you will be in harmony with yourself.
I try to place the emphases in different places, so it doesn’t sound as if all I’m saying is “just keep repeating this portion of the music”. I try to make it sound like: if you shorten the chunk size, then you might be inclined to perfect that chunk, before going on to the next chunk. It’s all ‘disinformation’, or misdirection as in the motions of the hands of a magician.
As you reduce the chunk size step by step, inversely raise your patience reducing the chunk size.
When you create a chunk that is half a measure in size, always “round it off” into the first note of the next group of notes, the next note that would ordinarily be emphasized.
When you first start a new ‘chunk’, try to remember what I said at this same stage in each previous chunk. “Yes”. “I was sounding the notes too tentatively for the results of my intention to register on me.” Remember we can settle for the delusion of confidence. As long as the other person thinks you are confident it doesn’t matter what your internal state may be.
At this juncture S.B came to a realization: “If I’m not really confident in the note I am playing, I will play it softly and tentatively, and even if it is the correct note, I am not getting as much confirmation of its correctness…my body is not feeling as much “vibration” from the note. I said: “what I am calling confirmation and what you are calling vibration, is a crucial aspect of the process. I made the following analogy: “it’s like I gave you three different mediums out of which to make a sculpture. One of the mediums is just soapy water, capable of forming transient bubbles of different sizes. This wouldn’t give you much feedback as to whether you are creating a certain shape, because the shape would disappear or dissipate as you were creating it.” S.B.: “I would have to sculpt a vessel”. Yes, you have to sculpt it out of a material that resists and yet complies. You are not going to sculpt it out of concrete, because that resists too much being formed under pressure. You can’t shape it. But if it is wet clay of some sort, then, yes, it will offer enough resistance to give you that “vibration”, as you call it, inside your hand, and between the fingers, but will also yields to your intentions. In sum, you want there to be enough ‘resistance’ in the sound to make it clear whether it has yielded to your musical intentions.
In the past I have hesitated to see all the way through a lesson like this S.B. He gets frustrated; and I correspondingly lose heart in my goals. Today was different. I made a decision before we started. If we didn’t get positive results I wouldn’t give up but would stay the course. Although he may become bored, today I wanted to create all the circumstances for a definite practicing breakthrough. “If you got bored, I decided to still persevere.” Like reluctant seeds in the ground, in need of just a little more moisture in order to sprout, I wanted to give the new habits the greatest chance of establishing themselves.
S. also figured out that the rate of increase in mastering a passage might come slower if the chunk size was bigger. And there is even a possibility that by the time you get to the end of the bloated chunk, you will have forgotten what you learned or corrected at the beginning of the chunk. So there is actually a negative possibility of getting worse with each repetition of the chunk. I confessed that I would find this totally demoralizing. And I wouldn’t want to practice any more. “I just don’t see what I’m doing wrong!” But using today’s new tactics, negative feedback was almost eliminated. You may be practicing at a slower tempo, undertaking smaller ‘chunks’, but you are getting more positive feedback, and this can only feel good. And it’s not artificial feedback like the typical new-age parent who gives their child a reward for every everyday thing they do. It is bona fide, deserved reinforcement.
At this point in the lesson we switched from variation 1 to the theme. I said “let’s see if we can combine some of the things we were doing in variation one, and see if by any chance it all comes together quicker. Adjust your speed downwards, but just enough to get the majority of the notes to come out correctly.
At one point he used the thumb on two consecutive notes). I said, the main obstacle to changing to a different fingering is a stubborn resistance on the part of the pianist – they don’t really want accept the necessity of changing the fingering. So, here, take this pencil, and put in a new fingering to try. Note that it is not the teacher saying “change your fingering to such and such”. It’s you yourself, overcoming your own resistance, saying I am going to find a better fingering for that passage. You are in control and are not capitulating to someone else’s voice or even the voice of the “good” person in yourself.
Another splendid thing happened. He played something and said: “I played it at the speed I thought I should be able to play it at by now. Instead I will revised the speed to one that presents the highest degree of probability that I will play correctly all the notes and with confidence.”
The time of the lesson was up. I said: maybe the main point today is that everything you are doing is under your control.
I’m back! Revving up your engine. Change of register within a theme. State “A” and state “B”
I haven’t blogged for a while. It’s been a rough month health wise and mood-wise. But here I am again. I’ve nothing too organized to write about today, so please indulge me is I am desultory in this blog entry.
#1 Revving up your engine for a moment before playing a difficult passage.
When confronted with a rapid passage that that moves in a series of notes of equal duration, let us say eighth notes in the right hand, covering several bars of 4/4 time, it is useful to rev up your engine (like a race car driver awaiting the flag to drop to start the race) and then overflow those four notes as the race begins and you cruise through the passage. This ‘revving’ up can consist of playing the first four notes over and over again in a loop, until the thrust of your “jet engine” has increased to the amount when you can then let off the breaks and sail down the runway.
#2 Change of register within a theme statement
When a melody is transferred by the composer from one octave range to another, it is important that the pianist “carries” the sound of the note from one octave to the other. Sorry to mix metaphors, but the listener has to be “led by the hand” from one range to the other, so that the new destination note sounds as alike as possible to the starting note, but for the accident of pitch range. Usually changing the octave of a note causes a major change in the quality of a note. But in this case we want to stress the sameness of the note despite its appearance in different ranges on the piano.
We want the listener to feel that it is the same sound that has taken off one outfit and put on a second, while still being able to recognize the person wearing the clothing.
#3 State “A” / State “B”
Solving technical hurdles, simplifying a passage, If you are not already familiar with the idea of state A and B, see:
do a ‘search’ on the front page for “practice technique”
With my students, I often use the terms “state A” and “state B” when referring, in the first case, to some altered way of playing or approaching a difficult passage that sheds new insight on its meaning or which unlocks the technical difficulties involved in the passage. State B, which follows upon state A, is playing the passage again, but this time as written in the score (in its performance form). The idea is that the insight gained in state A carries over into state B.
The important question is what to do after doing state A followed by state B. Many students will do state A, realize the benefit of doing it as they then play state B, but if they play the passage a second or third time, simply in its state B form, the benefits from having done state A gradually wear off and the passage begins to resume the state it had been in originally. When the student has completed the cycle state A – state B, she should resist the temptation to try the passage again in state B, almost as if to test whether the benefits previously gained are still showing in state B, or perhaps to try to improve the passage even more. Unfortunately the benefit from state A though it normally carries over automatically into the first iteration of state B, by simply following state A closely in time, becomes lost and diluted if you simply replay the passage in state B, over and over, without going back in between to state A again.
Always go back to state A, before doing another try at state B, for state A stands to state B as a going back to the well, the fountain, the source of the inspiration and insight that enlightens the passage.
Thus concludes a series of scattered thoughts. Let me know what you think or have questions about in the comments, and also tell me if you would like me to write about something specific next time. Some health stuff has burdened me, so the posts might be a little scattered. But stay tuned, I’m here.
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”.