Category: Teaching

The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch

I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.

For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to.  What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.

I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages.  When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons.  I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.

It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it.  Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me.  We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school.  I remember two particular events in that class that year.  The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.

The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch.  He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”.  The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me.  I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.

About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch.  Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound.  Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.

In  school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch.  I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”.  For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said.  She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it,  I can’t identify it.”  I listened for a few moments.  I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing,  and that it was in the key of C Minor.  So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement.  We hung up.  Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda.  She said, “show off!”.

One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I probably spent more time there than in classes.  I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens.  He is probably sitting by the stream.  If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.

Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound.  I never could get them right.  I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home.  There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook.   It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was.   That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other.  Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones.  Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.

My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces.   I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp.   But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.

Which brings up the clarinet.   I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade.  The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument.  When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as  a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments.   A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano.   Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.

In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student.  It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).

So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the  invasion of original instruments.   The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s.    I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch.   The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”.  That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries.  In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch.  Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.

At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”.  The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major.  At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major.  Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key.  However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C.   And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first.   Talk about being confused.  I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.

And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch.  This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.

But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me.  I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon.  I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype.  She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier.  I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear.  And lo,  the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents).  At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.

I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye.   I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.

Now I was faced with something similar with my ears.  Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears.  In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears.  That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go.  It must still be in my brain somewhere.

I was offered this explanations.  The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages.  The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates.  Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.

As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age.  My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano.  Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra.  But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.

So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?

Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves.  I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano.  I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves.  Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves.  If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C.  It was like hearing a C and a B.  To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years.  At first it was a curiosity.  Now it was intolerable.  The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C.  Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**

To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages.  But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception.  It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness.  Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all.  I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.

I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.

* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)

** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves.  In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object.  This allows the math to be simpler.  But a string is three dimensional.  It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane.   There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string   which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length.   A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place.   But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’.   This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.

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Ear Training, an Introduction: the What, the Why, the How

#1 Why do ear training?

Ask a student or performer if they listen as they play, and the answer which they give, without much pause to think, is generally “yes”.  Yet the ability to hear clearly while playing, and to understand what one is hearing, is the principal things that sets a good player apart from others.  The good player does not only have a good technique, but they have as strong an ability to listen completely and objectively to the sounds they are making.  In the hands of a master, technical matters are brought under the control of the ear.

It is a surprise to most musicians if you tell them that they are not really listening attentively when they play.  That too much of what they consider listening is actually physical sensations generated in the muscles causing notes to sound.   At the moment of an attack of a new note, there is often more tactile and kinaesthetic feeling going on than listening.

When the physical action stops but the note continues to sound, it is easier to focus purely on the sound.   Ideally there is a way to how to isolate sound from any muscular feelings or other sensations than that of hearing.

There is a way for the ear alone, whether that of the pianist or a listener, to learn to identify and distinguish among the many relations into which notes can combine.

Each such relationship produces for us a quality, and it this quality that forms the basis of ear training.

Being a good musician means having a mastery over the medium in which music exists, I.E. sound.  When possessed of such mastery, one can mold the medium of sound to one’s will.

No prior experience is needed to begin to develop the sensitivity of the “ear”.

#2  Sound is a quality.

The experience of sound is a quality and not a measurable quantity.

How notes combine into a single conscious experience is not a dividable into half steps or ticks of a clock.  Being a quality, there is no way of describing the quality of sound using words.   We must experience it.  If we try to ‘describe’ it to someone else, it is useless unless the other person has also experienced it directly.

The sounds we hear may result from combining notes in some measurable way, but we do not “hear” these measurements.   The quality of a chord, for example, is like a perfume.  It impresses us directly and unmistakably.  We do not need anything extra, such as the chemical makeup of the perfume, to fill ourselves with its aroma.

As I walk I may identity a certain scent in the air as that of a “rose”.  But unless one has already experienced this aroma and then also learned to associate it with the same word that I use, it is of no use to say the word “rose” to another and expect that they will know what scent we are talking about.

Associating an aroma with a word does not alter the aroma in any way.  We can study and examine the rose, but all we gain is knowledge (facts, quantitative measurements, etc.).  But all the while the fragrance persists calmly in our consciousness apart from anything visual, descriptive or analytical.

It is easy to stray from just the quality.  We are apt to substitute for it a symbol in the form of a name or an image.

A ‘rose expert’ can tell us while blindfolded what the name is of the specific type of rose they are smelling.   And though an ‘ear training expert’ would be able to give separate names to different patterns of sounds, it is more important that we simply have the ability to recognize when sound qualities are the same, or just similar, or vary more considerably.  Thus, while we could say: ah, that’s a perfect fifth sounding, or that’s a major chord in the first inversion, or those melody notes all belong to this or that scale, the important thing is that when you hear a perfect fifth and then a perfect forth, you can “smell” the difference.   If we never heard of a ‘half step’ we would still be aware of the difference in quality.

Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your innate, rapid, intuitive faculty of directly perceiving even the most subtle differences in quality between one combination of notes and another.   At first maybe we may only notice the most obvious differences, as between a chord and a melody.  In the world of odor, this would be like only being able to tell difference in quality between the smell of a lilac and that of a rose.   Later though we will be able to notice the difference in quality between various types of chords (various types of roses), and still later the subtlest differences between chords that arise from the intervals between the notes in the chord, their inversion, the number of notes they contain.  Our ability to distinguish between similar qualities in sound gets finer and finer.

If we hear a fast melody, we can tell from its overall quality through time just how many notes were in it (without counting as we hear them).

Eventually we become like the rose expert and can detect slight variations in quality between two roses on neighboring bushes.  We will be able to tell the difference between two chords that have the same root note, same ‘quality’ (major, minor…), and the same number of notes, whose only difference lies in the arrangement on the staves of where the root notes are, the thirds, and the fifths.  We will be able to single just one note from the chord with our ears and say whether it is a root note, third, or fifth.

We can be just as expert with intervals, melodies, and any other abstract relation between pitches (what I call “Sonic Geometry”).   We just want to avoid the temptation of applying some sort of musical ‘ruler’ to the sounds, by which we can measure the distance between two notes by a sense of their distance on a staff, along a piano keyboard, or along a violin string.

#3. Resolving ‘complex’ ear training abilities into an amalgam of simpler abilities.

In looking for a starting point for ear training, we might be tempted to start with something like : what is this chord that I just heard?  However, this is already a fairly complex ability.  It entails separate skills: is it a chord I’m hearing; how many notes are sounding; is it in root position or in an inversion; if I wanted to can I single note with my ear each individual note; can I tell what the intervals are between these notes; which of these notes are root notes, thirds, fifths, etc..

To come to realize that the original question involves an amalgam of simpler abilities,  we can learn to ‘refract’ through a ‘musical prism’ the original ability to see if it resolves into simpler component.   Nor should we be surprised if these simpler abilities, in turn, if each is put through another prism, do not resolve into even simpler abilities.  All ear training questions ultimately boil down to: 1) which is higher in pitch of two notes?  2) which is longer in duration of two notes?  3) how many sounds just sounded?  Then we can work our way backwards to our original question: what chord did I just hear?

#4.  Ear training is fun to do when there are two people together.

If you do not have access to a computer program*, or to a class being offered locally, Ear Training can be easily practiced with the help of just one friend and a room with two pianos (one will do also but it is a bit more cumbersome logistically).

The two people go back and forth presenting “questions” or answering questions.   The questions are always some combination of sounds.  The answer is either given in words or by reproducing the sounds on the other instrument.

Some examples on the simpler side:

Play two notes in a row: ask which one was either higher in pitch or longer in duration.   You can do something similar with three or more notes in a row (which was highest in pitch; which was longest in duration).

or

Play two or more notes at the same time: ask how many notes were sounding.  Play two or more notes one after the row: ask how many notes sounded.

or

Play a series of notes, one at a time, from an agreed upon range.  Have your partner try to match each one.   This range can after a while be expanded when agreed upon.   Later, let it be two simultaneous notes from an agreed upon range.

or

Agree that all the notes will be, for example, C-naturals, then play C-s in different ranges of the piano and have your partner match it in the correct octave.

Some examples of something with moderate difficulty:

Play examples of intervals (harmonic or melodic) but limited to only two possible answers (major third / minor third; perfect fourth / perfect fifth …).  Your partner provides the name of each that you play.  Later, there can be three possible correct answers (and eventually more).

Did the two chords just heard contain the same notes, or was one or more different (one being much harder than several).

The same principle of starting with two correct choices, then adding a third, fourth, etc.. can be applied to most ear training situations:  distinguishing among types or aspects of chords, three-chord harmonic progressions, types of rhythms, etc.).

As things advance, and the recipes become very gradually more complex.

Here are some examples of things of harder difficulty:

Which steps of a common scale did you just hear and in what order?  Or match the same notes (given the first note).

Was the chord in root position, first inversion or second inversion …

Listen to two chords: by how many half steps (and whether up or down) did the root notes move.

How many of the notes in one chord were also in the next chord.

Here is the scale of a particular key (play it one octave up and then down).  Then play a series of chords.  Ask on which scale step each is built.  Complicating factors can be whether the chord is in root position or inversion; whether non-diatonic chords are allowed; whether altered steps of the scale can be used for root notes.**

* You are welcome to request a copy of the “Joe Bloom Ear Training Program” which runs on PC-s but unfortunately not on Macs.

** For a more complete list of ear training activities, just send me a request.

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Using Your Voice as a Musical Aid

Pianists are blessed by having access to the most beautiful of instruments – no, not the piano – human voice.

Part One:

Things for which our voice can be used for in order to improve our playing.

#1.  The voice enables us to play legato.

In the hands of a master the piano sings and a melody can sound truly legato.  For the rest of us the piano resists our attempts in these directions.  However, our singing voice (no matter how bad) cannot but sing legato.  Our voice does not stop and then start when changing pitches, it can remain smooth throughout the change.   At the piano, the beginning of a new note is always the moment that contains the greatest, sudden contrast between degrees of softness and loudness.

Just as the motions of dancers seem to us to suddenly be less fluid and continuous in space when the accompanying music suddenly stops, so the pianist who is accompanied by their own singing – whether externally audible or audible only in their imagination, nudges the recalcitrant sound of the piano over the boundary that exists between, on one the side, separate and discrete notes, and on the other, a fluid and continuous flow of sound.

#2. The voices refines our ability to play evenly.

The spoken voice can be made to speak a series of syllables that is more regular, as well as even in timbre and in duration, than can be controlled by the fingers at the keyboard.  However, if the fingers are inhabited or possessed by the speaking voice they will ‘utter’ their notes as evenly as the voice.  It’s just a matter of knowing who’s boss: the fingers or the voice.  If the issue is in doubt, shift to the the voice quality of a Marine Drill Sergeant.

#3. The voice can determine and then create the ‘shape’ of a phrase.

Throughout our lives we have gradually learned to communicate in words with a voice that carries a meaning, and guided by that meaning are ‘shaped’, ‘inflected’, and ‘cadenced’.  Without the shape given the voice by meaning, we would not be easily understood by others.  Pianists need only use their own voice as a model for what a series of “sound-syllables” could “sound like” when under the molding and shaping power of a “meaning”.

Though the meaning of a musical phrase cannot truly be described in words, or vice versa, the two are not so utterly unalike that what goes on in one cannot prompt, promote, model and cajole what the other is doing.  By modulating our speaking voice we can shape a phrase at the piano as long as our playing mechanism is under the control of the voice.

#4.  The voice can ensure that rhythm is under the control of the meter.

If a quarter note beat is divided into a group of four sixteenths, it is not enough that the four notes be even.  It is not even enough that the four notes are shaped or inflected (as by the voice) to become a unit of musical meaning in the architectonics of the of the phrase to which the notes belong (although this is important).  There is still the more important demand to be made of the four sixteenths by the meter.  They should clearly manifest the meter of the measure.

Any measure in 4 / 4 time should (with only rare intentional exceptions) “sound like” 4 / 4 time.  This is imperative regardless of the rhythmic breakdown of the measure (what one might term the ‘modulation’ of the rhythm against the meter).  The same for every other meter.  The clarity of the manifestation of the meter is probably the most foremost factor in bringing notes to life.

Though ordinarily I find certain combinations of rhythm and pitches harder to play than others, my fingers have no choice but to follow my cheer leading voice as the embodies the incarnation of the meter: “one two three, one two three…”.  The cheerleader does not recite the Gettysburg Address.  Rather everything is put simply, emphatically, with no room left for doubt or interpretation.  Meter will always shed light on rhythm.  It will insure that each note in the rhythm has a meaning depending on placement in the measure.   And if, momentarily, I notice that my counts are suddenly out of sync with the note I am playing, it is usually because I wasn’t feeling that note in its proper relation to the measure (I had left the decision on how the note should articulate up to the fingers alone).

#5. The voice can eliminate tension in playing.

Whatever is the mechanical effort involved in speaking, it has at least been practiced by us for more hours and years than we have practiced the piano, and therefore requires little conscious effort.  The mechanical motions involved in playing piano are a more widely varied set than the postures of the mouth, tongue and lips, and often can lead us into a state of tension among the muscles.  We should remind ourselves at these moments that the movements in playing piano are natural body motions and can be done without effort,  and that the best form of this reminder is provided by our audible speaking voice, moving in tandem through time with the piano’s notes.*

#6. The voice can overcome the impact of the decay in a long note.

The human voice is the natural embodiment of propelling one sound forwards through time, until it spills over the brim of the vessel containing its duration, and eventuating or blossoming into the next sound.  What better model to directly counteract the state of every long piano sound: by which it gets weaker and weaker moment by moment, only to have, in its old age, its pathetic life cut short by the guillotine of the attack of the next note.   The voice models the result of when there is a more sustained moment to moment sound in the piano.

One may object that the voice has no power to effect the decay of a note.  For more about this objection see “Rekindling A Note (geriatrics for old notes)” https://joebloom.com/3-brief-blogs-technical-situations-that-seem-the-same-but-arent-counting-out-loud-sustaining-a-dying-note/

Part Two:

There are many other purposes for the use of the voice in piano playing, some of which I list in brief in below, and I hope you find others and let me know.

#1 To get to the heart of the music and make it speak emotionally.

#2 To generate excitement and enthusiasm.

#3 To bring out one note (or several notes) in a chord.

#4 To bring out one voice among several or bringing out a hidden  voice.

#5 To apply the brakes on a runaway tempo.

#6 To hit the energy accelerator to push the tempo out of being lifeless.

#7 To augment or create a crescendo or decrescendo.

#8. To express rising action towards a long term goal.

#9. To avoid any single note from coming out haphazardly. To  “take charge” of every note.

#10. Yo raise the identity of the names of the notes to a higher level  of  conscious awareness.

#11. To raise the level of conscious awareness of the order in  which we use the fingers by saying these finger numbers out loud as we play each note.

#12. To give voice to the ‘whoosh’ of the pulse that propels one sound-event in time into the next.

#13. Yo make small intervals sound like, or feel like, wide intervals,  and vice versa.

#14. To allow the body to figuratively take a breath before starting a new phrase by taking an audible breath with our lungs.   A      to make an audible and prolonged exhalation of air to keep the  sound of the notes sustained so they don’t flag.

#15. To emphasize the notes that form the “sonic glue**” or the “physical glue***” in a passage.

#16. To “lasso” a group of notes so they adhere together in a melisma.

#17. To keep the pulse tight and animated.

#18. To give a clear feeling of pitch to the notes at the extreme  ends of the keyboard.

#19. To mix together “pulse” and “flow”.

#20. To bring out a detail in a phrase.

#21.  To play in a speed that is faster than the fingers can do alone.

#22. Yo push the phrase when the fingers are unwilling to do so.

Summary:

In all of these cases the purpose is to surround the sound with a vocal ‘glow’ that causes that part of the sound that comes from the piano alone, to incandence.

*For playing a rapid series of notes, especially a prolonged series, a nonchalant and understated voice, one sounding almost apathetic and seemingly devoid of caring, is a perfect model for an absence of overexertion physically.

** Sonic “Glue”.  Creating a flowing line is more than a matter of connecting each note to the next.  It is also a matter of looking within a measure for repeating pitches, notes that repeat in the same or different octaves but are in a different voices, the other hand, or a different finger.   And then insuring that they all sound the “same”, and create a homogeneous sound despite their individual differences.

Sometimes these notes create a separate rhythm than the prevailing melody or the rhythm of the accompaniment.   Focusing some of your attention on this rhythm is another way of gluing the sound of the measure together.  It can strike the ear as a ‘mysterious’ melody that seems to come out of nowhere.

*** Two complimentary examples of physical “glue”.

Ken Burns pioneered the technique of seeing an historical event refracted through the eyes of various individuals.  A Civil War battle would be seen through the eyes of a General, but also through the eyes of a Private who had no special claim to fame in the battle other than they were one of many who were there.

We usually do not pay much attention to a finger that is not at that very moment pressing a key down to make a sound.  However, for certain very complicated passages, there is an advantage to tracing the history of one particular finger, one “private” in the army, and noting the notes (‘scenes’) within the passage in which that finger takes action to depress a key.   For example, in a certain measure, on the first beat, the second finger is playing a B.  Nearer to the second beat of the measure the second finger again is used to play a G#.  And so on.   It gives us a thread to follow through the intricacies of the narrative.  Following the history of just one finger gives us feedback, in the form of check-in points, as to whether we are still on the correct path through the passage.

Another example doesn’t look so much at which finger plays which note but which notes may be played more than once in the passage, though by different fingers (from the same or different hands).  By playing just those notes, and leaving out the notes in between, we form a structural filament, as if of a spider’s web, to hold the passage together.

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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?

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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

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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”.

 

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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.

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