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“Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

To answer a parent’s question: “Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

You expressed two concerns in your last lesson.

  • You wanted to be able to tell your child what note to start on.
  • I wasn’t telling you what note to start on.

I want to address these concerns

First let’s look at the ultimate goal:

  • Your child needs to know what note to start on without you needing to help him.
  • How can he figure this out independently?

1) Listening to the the recording

You have been doing the listening at home. You told me that everyone in your family recognized that adding the “C” to Mary Had a Little Lamb sounded weird when your child started the song on B. This tells me that everyone in the family has a very clear idea of how the song sounds when it is played correctly. You all developed this idea from listening to the recording. Excellent!

You all realized that there was something not quite correct about his way of playing it because you were all comparing it to your idea from the recording. Excellent!

Next step: If you are not quite sure of something, refer to your reference recording. Go back and listen to it again, and then try playing the piece again. The discrepancy in the first note would become much more immediately obvious. When I do this with students in lessons, they often just automatically make the needed correction without realizing it after hearing the recording. (Then I have to ask them – “What did you just do differently?”  “Oh…”)

The most important part about this approach is that the student gets to figure it out independently. If a student has difficulty, parents and teachers can guide his attention to a specific spot by asking questions – “Did your first note sound the same or different than the first note on the recording?” – or by playing just a short section of the recording instead of the entire piece.

2) Reviewing previous repertoire

When we learn new fingerings, we transpose the “toolbox” songs to start on different notes. This is to change the key of the piece, to incorporate a new fingering in a familiar melody. Because the melody is very familiar, anything that sounds “odd” directs the students’ attention to the accuracy of the new fingering.

By reviewing these toolbox songs starting on different notes in the daily home practice, the student recognizes that there are multiple options for playing these tunes in different keys, and learns to hear the difference when the the tune starts on an A or a B by daily direct comparison.

The allows the student to recognize patterns from previous pieces in new repertoire, even if the patterns start on different notes.

So if something sounds “odd” in practice, questions to be asked can include: “Can I play this piece in a different key (on a different starting note)?” “Will what I am trying to do work better in one key or another?”

So this is my philosophy:

All new pieces will be introduced with these questions in mind:

  • “What is in this piece that I already know?”
  • “What is in this piece that is new?”

Beginning with the “same / different / higher / lower” pitch identification game in our first lessons, all the way through to finding the start of the recapitulation in a classical sonata-allegro concerto movement, the process of learning the music remains the same, only the complexity of the material changes. We identify when it is the same, and when it is different.

  • If a student does consistent review of previously learned material, he has a repertoire of “same” things that he can access for immediate comparison.
  • If a student listens consistently to the reference recording, he will recognize things that are different and try to imitate them.
  • If his imitation is successful, he has just solved the “different” problem independently by combining known material in a new way.
  • If his imitation is not immediately successful, direct comparison to the reference recording and guiding questions from the practice parent or teacher can help him find the answer.

Yes this takes longer. WAY longer than just saying “It starts on an A”. But only at the beginning. If we invest the time in learning this process at the start, we can sit back later and enjoy how competently our students master new material quickly and independently. I have also seen the alternative, where students who have depended upon their parents to tell them what to do have quit playing the instrument once they get to an age where depending on the parent isn’t that fun anymore but they haven’t got the skills to do it themselves yet. I would rather foster a student who can work independently at a high level, so at an age when he desires more independence he can go off and work on his own with continued success.

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