Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Typing notes is not playing piano

We all know and have heard students who play like that. "Type, type, type......" the pianist is oblivious to the tone, the accidentals, the rhythm, the dynamics. It is because the task of finding the notes has taken up all his brain power. He has no room to think of the other peripherals. We hear the typing student at sightreading time. We also hear them in the students that do not practise at home, or they practise by playing through the music and not polishing the flow of the music. We hear the typing student in the ones that dislike using the metronome because 'the metronome is distracting'.
Sometimes, the seasoned piano teacher will just wait patiently for the student to finish typing the piece.

1. Self awareness
It all begins with self awareness. Do they know that they sound awful typing the piano? Perhaps show them a video recording of them looking for their notes at the lesson.

2. Sing
Beginner books have lyrics that go with the piece of music. The purpose is to get the kids to sing and keep time to their own singing. It also helps to sing in solfege to build a sensitivity to the shape and phrasing.

3. Build good reading habits
Good pianist do not read one note at a time. Just as good typist with good typing speed do not type one finger at a time on the computer keyboard / typewriter.  They build a good tactile feel of where the letters are on the keyboard and simply type sentences at a time and leave the fingers to feel the way around the computer keys. Likewise, good pianists read in chunks of patterns, they integrate scales, chords and inversions, and harmony into their playing. They read the music score like they are watching a movie.

4. Pre-hear the music
To play and read well, it helps to know in advance in the mind's eye what the end result sound like before a single note is played. Just like a potter working at the clay on the potter's wheel. The shape of the clay takes shape as the potter intuitively moulds the chunck of clay into a preconceived end result that is already in his cognitive mind.

5. Good teaching
Sometimes teachers are at fault because we teach students to spell their notes rather than to recognise the intervals and direction which the notes move. I know of students who have transferred to me using the Alfred's Premier Course or the Faber Piano Adventures but were not taught to read intervallically. Their previous teachers have simply used the pieces and taught the music by spelling the right hand followed by spelling the left hand.  Some students are able to still build up musically past the spelling stage, but the average students with this poor means of reading are handicapped for life typing well into their piano sonatas and Romantic pieces.

6 Practising in small bite size
A good practise regime helps the student to get past the typing stage. A new piece of music may require a bit of effort to familiarise but with repetitions, the motions go into a more permanent memory. Very often students are apathetic to the task of practising mindfully. Settling for substandard playing through slip shod practise.

7 Playing a piece of music that is beyond their level of comprehension
In this age of instant emails and watsapp. People no longer have the patience to wait. Every parent thinks that their kids are the next Lang Lang. Afterall Mozart is able to hear a piece of music one and replicate it note for note as a child. So if Mozart can do it, so can their child. And so, piano teachers end up being the chief monkey for the kids to mimic their playing. Monkey see, monkey do.

Type, type, type.....goes the student, the piano teacher waits for the music to finish.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Separating the Reading of Rhythm from Pitch

This is a screen grab from the internet taken from a book that uses pre-staff note reading. Many piano tutor books such as Alfred's Premier Piano Course and Faber Piano Adventures employs pre-staff reading taking up to half the number of pages in the beginners level 1 book. It would be a mistake for piano teachers to skip over these first 30 pages of the books to go right into the pages where pitch is introduced on the staff. Many piano teachers who themselves were taught on the Middle C approach are at a loss at how to teach pre-staff reading to their beginner piano students.

Why is rhythm separated from note reading?
Some teachers may ask, "What is wrong with the old system of John Thompson and Schaum, which teaches rhythm AND note reading at the word 'go!' when a child starts learning piano?". There is nothing wrong, but over the years, piano pedagogues have found that fluent reading is actually not by reading note names. That is not how good piano performers and sight readings process notes on a page and turn them into sounds out of the piano.

Let us conduct an experiment, look at the word below:


How does your brain take in that information? Does it recognise the entire word? Does it think of the meaning behind the word? Or, does it just see the individual letters of the alphabet spelling the word 'butterfly'? 

Similarly, look at this:

How does your brain process this information? Notice there are no clef in front of the notes. But what your brain is probably processing is the intervallic relationship from one note to the next.

This is actually a more fluent reading process. It is more wholistic, taking in the big picture rather than the sum of it's parts. You are able to get a flow, rather than sporadic 'typing' action from one note to the next and ignoring the melodic flow.

The pros of pre-staff reading is:
1. Young beginners at the piano can focus on building a good hand shape.
2. They learn high and low sounds on the piano, and apply that to reading Directionally. Going up and going down, once they have placed their hands on the the starting spot indicated by the picture on the keyboard.
3. Starting on the black keys as opposed to the white keys of the keyboard, anchors the students to arch and curve their fingers. It also points them out to the 2 and 3 black key pattens on the piano which will come in handy to find the white keys later on. Eg. The 2 black keys help students to find all the 'CDE' on the piano and the 3 black keys help students to find firstly 'F' and 'B' and then 'AG'.
4. Only the concept of playing with both hands, maintaining a steady pulse and feeling 'crotchets' and 'minims' (quarter and half notes) is taught and reinforced in pre-staff reading.

What pre-staff reading does is to lay a good FOUNDATION to learning how to read music.

Dorothy Chia is a  piano teacher and author of 'Piano Pedagogy - The Questions', 'Piano Pedagogy - The Answers', Theory Explorer for the Young Musician, books 1 and 2, available at Kinokuniya, MPH, Yamaha, Gramercy, Renner, Music Bookroom and Chiu Piano. Dorothy holds a Master of Music in Piano Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is the 1992 DH Baldwin Fellowship winner.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Middle C Approach

Most piano teachers or students would be familiar with John Thompsen, Easiest Piano Course (with dwalfs on the cover) or the Modern Piano Course (red book). John Thompsen is a classic case of teaching note recognition using the Middle C approach. Other piano tutor books using such an approach include: Edna Mae Piano Course, Leila Fletcher Course, John W. Schaum etc. Most of these books were published in the 60s and 70s. Books currently in the market using this teaching approach include: Lina Ng Piano Lesson Made Easy, Poco Piano for Young Children etc.

In the Middle C Approach, students are taught Middle C on the grand staff in the beginning lesson.

On subsequent new pieces, one note is added at a time. So, first week is Middle C; second week is Treble MC, D; third week is Bass clef MC, B; then Treble MC, D, E; and Bass MC, B, A etc.
On top of note recognition, rhythm, meter is taught simultaneously together with the note reading.

The pros of this approach is:

  • It is systemetic teaching 1 note at a time.
  • It utilizes the middle range of the piano, which fits nicely to the comfort zone of little children.
  • It begins with the thumb and work its way outwards to all 5 fingers.
The cons of this approach is:
  • This approach teaches note reading through 'note spelling'.
  • The piano has 88 keys, but only 10 keys are explored by the end of the first book.
  • While emphasis is built on note identification, not much foundation is laid on a steady pulse and rhythm.
  • There might be an association of finger numbers to specific keys at the piano since children spend an excessive amount of time on the same keyboard area. Hence, children may think finger 1 is the equivalent to Middle C.
  • Limited chord playing.

Concepts such as intervals, chords, transposition, major and minor keys are generally not explored or minimally touched upon. Creative exercises like improvisation or technique and sight reading are not explored sufficiently.

This method approach has had much success in the early years as it was the market leader in the 60s-70s. But much research into Piano Pedagogy has shown that the Middle C approach is old fashioned and outdated. Newer and updated ways of teaching music has evolved.

Are you still a teacher using the outdated Middle C Approach in your piano studio teaching?
What new methods are there?
Stay tuned to find out more.......

Dorothy Chia is a  piano teacher and author of 'Piano Pedagogy - The Questions', 'Piano Pedagogy - The Answers', Theory Explorer for the Young Musician, books 1 and 2, available at Kinokuniya, MPH, Yamaha, Gramercy, Renner, Music Bookroom and Chiu Piano. Dorothy holds a Master of Music in Piano Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is the 1992 DH Baldwin Fellowship winner.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Are You Teaching Your Students to read in an Outdated Method?

Every piano teacher laying the foundation of teaching young beginners at the piano is tasked with the very important responsiblity of teaching students how to read music notes. A non-music person always marvel at how a music person can decipher the 'tow gays' (bean sprouts) ala music notation on the printed page and out of the musical instrument, produce such heavenly music. Little do they know that the reading of music notation entails a process of:

1. Note names and pitch recognition
2. Rhythm notation and execution
3. Eye-to-Hand execution of music notation into playing an instrument

That is a lot to process from symbol to sound. In the subsequent blog postings, l will be examining this mysterious process of learning to read Music. Every serious piano teacher who is serious about creating music literate students, stay tuned to this blog for more.

Dorothy Chia is a  piano teacher and author of 'Piano Pedagogy - The Questions', 'Piano Pedagogy - The Answers', Theory Explorer for the Young Musician, books 1 and 2, available at Kinokuniya, MPH, Yamaha, Gramercy, Renner, Music Bookroom and Chiu Piano.