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Sometimes, it Really Is Black and White

January 16, 2019

Key signatures remain a stumbling block for certain types of students.

We were reading the middle section of the Mozart “Rondo alla Turca” – the section with the seemingly endless running sixteenths in the right hand.

If I am reading a piece in G Major, when I come to a note in a measure that that is printed on the top line of treble clef it simply doesn’t “look like” an “F” to me.  It looks different, it “looks like” an “F#.”  I’m lucky that way.  For many students however F-s do not magically transform in appearance to F#-s.

I also carry around the inductive logic of the circle of fifths as a fixed and clear model in my mind.  There is no trouble in remembering that if there are three sharps in the key signature they will be F#, C# and G#.  I don’t have to examine the key signature to come to this conclusion.  For many, though, regardless of experience, they have to look at the sometimes dense group of sharps or flat signs at the beginning of each line, an decipher for which line or space each is centered on, then try to remember, each one separately, to go through a check list, as it were, for each note they encounter in the piece to figure out of it is a natural or not.

These students have difficulty every developing more than a rudimentary sense of what a “key” is.  They are apt to forget each time, for instance, that if there are three sharps in the key signature, they are always the same  sharps, and that these F#, C#, G#.* Sometimes they will find it easier to they remember the three as C# F# G#, so at least they are sorted alphabetically.  A typical question from such a type of student is “how do you know if the piece is major or minor?”  “Can you tell from just looking at the notes at the beginning of the piece; or is it something to do with the sound?”   Attempting to explain the answer to this question in terms of there being certain statistical likelihoods for certain notes and chords to show up in the first measures of the piece, further complicates and mystifies.

The inductive logic of the circle of fifths doesn’t establish itself firmly in their minds.  They do not see an imaginary sharp or flat sign to the left of each note along a line of music, whose existence is confirms a sharp or flat that in the key signature at the beginning of the line.  And practicing scales until they become automatic in the fingers seems a daunting task, as difficult and time consuming as learning entire pieces.

For many years I stubbornly retained the simple logic of he circle of fifths as the only unambiguous way of clarifying key signatures to students for whom this posed an issue.  Logic, I felt, will always win out.  It took a while to mature out of this notion.

At today’s lesson I chose a less elegant, a less logical, but simpler expedient.  I told Rachael that my intuitive impression was that as she was reading the notes on the page it didn’t seem immediately clear to her whether the next note to play was a white note or black note.  I took the first measure of the passage, and I asked her to play the passage as slowly as she needed to in order for her to say for each next note that she read, “this is a black note”, or “this is a white note”.  How she determined this was unimportant, it was just the final experience of the hand on the keyboard that mattered.

This shifted the emphasis from remembering the key signature and how it applied within the measure, and raising to a higher level of conscious awareness the identity of that note as simply being a white note or a black note.  There was no more key signature present.  There was just the individual identity of each note as falling into the class black note or white note.  If it was a black note it didn’t matter if it was written as a sharp or as a flat.  Only key color mattered.  The same with regard to white notes,  whether their note names were naturals, or flats or sharps.

This first measure of eight sixteenth notes was just memorized as a sequence of words.  Just as a binary number is a series of zeros and ones in a certain order, so the measure was a series of the words ‘back’ and ‘white’.

At first she seemed skeptical that this could work, since it seemed to beg the question of needing to know and retain in her mind the key signature.  But it turned out otherwise.  Now that there was only one of two things to choose about each note, and after putting in the initial downloading time it took to put the measure into this on/off, zero/one, black/white form, her confidence level in playing the notes correctly rapidly increased.  She felt a certainty and a mastery over what to play.  There were no questions left.  No uncertainties.  Just the color of the notes. She bypassed any worry about applying a ‘template’ of white and black notes, first to the key signature, and relate things from there to the notes of a measure.

*Or furthermore that the first two of those sharps are always the same as the sharps that appear when there is only two sharps in the key signature.

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