Category Archives: Pedagogy

Retard!

Retard!

Ever since I came to this country, I’ve been puzzled and appalled by music teachers who use the term “ritard”.

I recently came across it on a website where the blogger talked about taking advantage of “phrases, cadences, ritards, etc… – Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, […]” .

If you were to hear someone use the term “dimins” – would you know what they meant? It’s the same kind of abbreviation as “ritards”.

Yes, “ritardando” is a long word, but so are crescendo, decrescendo, and five-syllable words such as accelerando and diminuendo (which is even harder to pronounce).

The use of the term ritardando varies of course from composer to composer and from one style period to the next: Baroque and Classical composers didn’t seem to use the term (they trusted you to know where and how much to bend the tempo), 19th Century romantic composers actually did not use it as much as one would think, whereas contemporary composers who compose in a romantic style use it a lot. Impressionistic composers do use it but prefer French terminology (en retenant or cedez).

There are two commonly used abbreviations for ritardando:  rit. and ritard.

In scores, whether we find rit. or ritard. seems to depend to a large degree on the edition: Wiener Urtext does ritard., Henle has mostly rit., Schirmer seems to be 50/50, Maurice Hinson and Jane Magrath use rit.

Chopin, in Polish and Hungarian editions, uses rall. or rallent.

Here in the United States, I find the use of “ritard.” appallingly insensitive because ritard. sounds too much like “retard” – a word we have been working so hard to get people to stop using. Retard *is* a word in the English language, and to use something that sounds alike, even though you mean something different (the root is the same, though), shows an appalling lack of concern, especially when it comes from a teacher.

If you want to abbreviate ritardando please use rit. (There is no confusion with ritenuto which is always shortened to riten.)

P.S.: I similarly like to shorten diminuendo to dim. (not dimin.) because it is short and unambiguous, and because it is descriptive: dim the lights, dim the sound.

Changing Teachers

During the first couple weeks with a new transfer student, they will often exclaim when I say or demonstrate something, “Wow – I didn’t know that! My old teacher never told me about this.” Or they will say things like,”I have learned more from you in just one month than from my old teacher in a year!”

When I first started teaching, I naturally assumed this happened because I was such a better teacher than their old one. Then one day, a colleague conducted a small masterclass for some of my students and in the process asked my student in what key his piece was. He gave her a blank look and said, ” – I don’t know?”

I almost fell off my chair. Mouth agape, stunned look on my face, I could not believe he did not remember how we had figured out not only in what key his piece was, but also the key relationships from one section to the next. Whenever I quizzed him at his lessons, he knew all of that. And now – suddenly he doesn’t know in what key his piece is??  I was embarrassed and made sure to tell my colleague afterward, privately, that this student DID in fact know the answer. She just chuckled and said, “I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t teach this piece without going over the key relationships.”

Nice of her, but very eye-opening for me. Now when I get a transfer student who doesn’t “know” something I don’t automatically assume that the previous teacher didn’t teach it.

It also puts in a different light when transfer students gush at how much more they are learning from me than their old teacher: so often it is simply a matter of hearing a new voice, sometimes a different gender, describe or explain something in a new way that makes them pay attention in a way they didn’t with the old teacher. Different environment, different materials perhaps, different vocabulary, and also very simply a bit of adrenaline because everything is so NEW! and not familiar yet.

To parents of teenagers this is nothing new. One of my favorite books as a parent of teenagers was “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall” by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.  In the chapter on “They Don’t Listen to Anything I Say” he imagines the following conversation: 

“Eloise, I think it would be a good idea if you dropped Spanish. You’re spending a lot of time on it, and you’re still failing. I’m afraid it’s pulling your other grades down as well.”

“No, Dad, I can handle it. Just leave me alone. You don’t know anything. I’m doing okay.”

“No, Eloise, you’re starting to do badly, and I think the Spanish is just too much.”

“Dad! I can handle it. I’m doing okay. Now leave me alone.”

Two nights later: “Dad, I’ve decided to drop Spanish. I was talking to Becky’s mother about how I was having trouble in school and she said maybe I should drop Spanish. I think she’s right. Besides, I don’t need it anyway, and now I’ll have more time for my other subjects.”

“What did I just say to you two nights ago?”

“I don’t remember.”

… 

 

The Art of Teaching

The Art of Teaching is different from, say, the art of painting, or the art of playing an instrument, different from the art of tuning a piano, or the art of making a beautiful home.

If you mess up your painting, you’ve got a messed up painting. If you mess up on your instrument, you messed up a piece of music. If you don’t do a good job tuning that piano, then you’ve got a messed up piano which is annoying and can be expensive to fix.

When you mess up in your teaching, you are messing with a human being.

So, why is it that people who know how to play their instrument but have NO training in regard to teaching are let loose on pupils?

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe some poor and inexperienced teaching. One of the two teachers had a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, in addition to a frenetic and somewhat chaotic personality (and teaching style). While this teacher was without a doubt very experienced, the lesson itself was not a very promising sign of things to come: it was crammed full with irrelevant information (way too much theory that would not be applicable/useful for several weeks), redundant information (without checking with the student what he already knew, this teacher “taught” concepts with which the student was thoroughly familiar already), and way too little actual instruction on the instrument. The student was not given sufficient time to try out the new concept and then make sure that it was sufficiently understood to be taken home and practiced for a week.

The other teacher had a much more pleasant personality and some day will probably be a good teacher. At the moment, however, this one has neither the experience nor the training to teach a beginning student. After grousing about how inexperienced this teacher was, I came to the realization that it was not inexperience but the obvious lack of pedagogical training which made the lesson unsuccessful.

We all start out “inexperienced”. None of us are born with experience. There’s a first time for everything. There’s a first time a physician performs an exam or a surgery. There’s the race car driver’s first race.

What sets these people apart is the fact that before their first “real” thing they did spend time, usually a very long time, observing their masters, and then learning to practice their craft, usually under the guidance of their masters.

For some reason, people think that as long as you can play an instrument, you can teach. I actually once overheard the wife of the head of a music department at a university tell one of the professors something to the effect of “I don’t understand what there is to learn about teaching: you gotta love kids and you gotta love what you do.” There. She said it. What more could there possibly be to it?

There are, of course, “natural” teachers, just like there are “natural” psychologists, people who have an instinctive, intuitive, “feel” for people. But think of the training a psychologist has to undergo before she is allowed to practice her craft!

My wish list for pedagogical training of any future teacher of musical instruments includes:

•mandatory lesson observations of different masters in their field, more than just once or twice please;

•study the art of teaching their particular instrument: while there is some flexibility, there is usually a certain order in which things need to be learned (master addition before you attempt multiplication) or else you end up with an unreliable foundation;

•study the teaching literature for their instrument: just because you grew up with a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the best;

•teach many, many lessons under the supervision of your teacher/master. In the beginning, this should take the form of observing your teacher’s lesson (of another student) and taking over for 5 minutes to teach a certain concept. Over time, you grow into teaching an entire lesson, more time and you’ll be creating your own lesson plans.

In short, some form of apprenticeship.  Think about a physician’s first surgery. Regardless of how simple the surgery, the physician has most likely observed this surgery many, many times, then, with more training (reading about it, studying all aspects of it, passing tests to prove she understands all aspects of it), assisted in this surgery before she ever gets to touch a patient without supervision.

Of course, you say, well, with surgery – you have to be that careful.

But why should a student’s learning process be different from surgery? As a teacher who gets transfer students, I see all the time the damage a teacher with insufficient training can do to a student who doesn’t know any better.

I dream of a world in which we hold (the training of) teachers of musical instruments to the same standards as physicians, psychologists, and other professionals in charge of human development and health.

(Originally published Nov 19, 2009)

Competitions – who gets to go?

I have in my studio many ambitious and competitive students and parents. Naturally, they want to enter competitions, and win prizes. So, the question is:  who gets to go??

When a student or parent asks whether they get to “do that competition”, I have learned to ask, “Why do you want to enter this competition?”  Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer can be vague: “Because we did it last year?” or “Her friend does it” or such. For me, those are not good enough reasons.

Of course every teacher has their own way of determining whether a student should enter a competition, but for me, I have decided that two things need to be in place:

One, the student has to demonstrate a strong desire to excel. All the time, not just when there’s something “in it” for the student such as a competition and therefore a possible prize. If the student doesn’t seem to have this strong desire to excel then the parent has to have it.

Two, the student needs to benefit from the competition. Preparing for a competition is a lot of work, tedious work, and for some students that’s exactly what they need: a goal, and a deadline. For other students having that kind of pressure is not constructive. And of course, students can have different needs from year to year.

And every year, sigh, I misjudge at least one student …

thou shalt

In an article in the October 2006 issue of Clavier, Greg Brown says the goal of The 5 Browns is

to relax some of the formality of concert etiquette that might discourage people from attending classical music programs. We don’t mind when people applaud between movements of a work; it just means they like the music.

Say what?  Dilute the clear distinction between the educated who know that thou shalt not clap until the end of a work, and on the other hand the hapless, uneducated, uninitiated, who – heaven forbid – applaud enthusiastically after a particular beautiful or rousing movement even though there’s more to come?  (I am not talking about the people who clap because they think they are supposed to clap but have no clue where and when.)

Why is it that we hold the inseparatability of a multi-movement work so sacred? Can you imagine an opera where no one claps until the very end?  The singers wouldn’t know what to think!  Or imagine a rock concert where people start to clap at the beginning of a song because they recognize the song and show their enthusiastic anticipation of what’s to come. (Ah, yes, I hear ye, “But a rock concert is not the same as a classical concert!”  That’s right.  A rock concert is usually sold out, to tens of thousands of people, who want to be there.)

I once attended a concert with a woman who politely started to clap immediately at the end of a piece – even though the end of the piece was particularly quiet and there was the afterglow of the last couple of notes still in the air.  Her clapping actually disrupted, destroyed the lingering scent. When I mentioned this to her she said that she felt obliged to clap because otherwise the performers might think that she didn’t like the piece.

What I would really like is a performance world – and I have read that this is how they do it in Israel – where you clap when you feel like it, but only then.  No more holding back your enthusiasm after a movement that excites you, but likewise no polite applause at the end of a piece whose performance you didn’t like.

There are other cases of  “thou shalt” – traditions that we hold onto religiously, because we think we’ve always done it this way, although a closer look at history would prove us wrong.

Among the most passionately fought wars in piano pedagogy is the issue of memorization.  For most of the 20th century, pianists performed from memory, and teachers required their students to memorize.  While there are students who seem to memorize effortlessly without even trying, memorization is actually a skill that can and needs to be taught and learned, just like sight-reading, or playing by ear.  The issue of whether to require, some will say “force” students to memorize, has been at the heart of many articles and discussions in professional journals.

What seems suspiciously absent from these discussions is the distinction between memorizing and performing from memory which is a completely different issue.

I teach memorization skills because they are an important part of a good piano education.  Those of my students who have studied with me for a while know better than to ask, “Do I have to memorize this piece?” because my answer is always the same: “If you do a good job practicing then you cannot help but memorize along the way.”  The implication being that good practice trains all the elements of memorization:  finger memory (because you have played the piece a million times), intellectual memory (because I have asked you to explain all the details of the piece and you have trained to play hands separately and from anywhere in the piece), aural memory (because you know how it sounds), visual memory (because you know what it looks like), and so on.  Memorization then becomes a mere extension of practicing, a different aspect of practicing, but not a separate issue.

My students are required to memorize their performance pieces.  But I don’t require them to perform from memory anymore.  If all that separates the student from a great performance is the comfort of having the score in front of him (I call it a security blanket), as a visual reminder, then he gets to use the score.  If there’s any suspicion that the student needs the score to read the notes, then we know that the piece is not ready for a performance.

The one criterion for a good performance is that the performer enjoyed performing and the audience enjoyed listening.

Planning and growth

Many, many years ago, when I was still in the first ten years of my teaching career, I was successful. I was able to attract good students, where good meant talented and dedicated, with supportive parents.

So it was quite a shock when the mother of a younger (3rd grade?) transfer student after about one semester decided to quit lessons with me. She explained that her daughter still missed the previous teacher’s daughter with whom she had been good friends, so “piano lessons” had always meant a play date as well.

But also, and more importantly, the mother explained, I just didn’t have a plan. There was no plan in my teaching, she said, no logical progression, no first this then that, nothing to look forward to, because nobody knew what was coming up.

This was a slap in the face. I had been so proud of being more creative than other teachers who used a cookie cutter approach to teaching: same method for every student, same materials, same pieces on every recital.

I easily dismissed her criticism, and explained it away as the uneducated opinion of someone who simply did not know how to appreciate my creative approach. After all, if this had been a real problem then other parents would have said the same thing, right?

Wrong, of course.

I now know – but don’t remember how I came to learn – that she was absolutely correct of course. I now value having a plan, thinking ahead, designing individual assignment sheets for my students (printed out ahead of the lesson). I try to balance having a plan and at the same time being creative in the implementation of the plan, and I always try to pay attention and make changes as necessary. I appreciate being able to spend the time to do a lot of thinking about my students, where we want to go, and how we will get there. I still don’t have an answer to a parent’s question, “How long before she’s going to play the Moonlight Sonata?” but I can lay out the (kinds of) books and materials I anticipate using, and in what order.

Different but related: eleven weeks ago I got braces. Because the first appointment with the woman who took care of the financial aspect and offered to explain everything was somewhat unhelpful – every question I had was answered with an enthusiastic and just-barely-not-condescending “Oh – it’ll be so easy!” – I made an appointment with the orthodontist, about six weeks into this adventure, asking if he would share the treatment plan: what are the issues he is seeing, and how will he address them, what are his goals, and how will we get there.

It was a most frustrating experience. He seemed genuinely stumped at these questions. “Well – we’re gonna put braces on your teeth …”  He didn’t mention any specific issues, and when I brought up one of them (that I was aware of), he still would not explain what he planned to do about it but spent a good five minutes explaining why we had to address the issue, and how my teeth got to where they are – something he had already explained in detail at the first consultation.

He emphasized how very individual every patient and therefore the treatment is, using the example of two different kinds of trucks: a Ford, and a Toyota – both are trucks, but very different vehicles. I played along and said, “Tell me about my Ford, then.” Again, he spent most of the time explaining why we had to address issues and how my teeth got to be where they are, but no real answers to my very specific questions.

Afterward I thought, either he doesn’t have a plan (not likely), or he is not used to being asked to explain, or he sucks majorly at explaining. Or maybe he misunderstood my questions as concerns and worries that he felt compelled to make me feel better about. The problem is that I didn’t have concerns or worries, I wasn’t looking for consolation, I was looking for information, something I thought was clear from my questions.

Fortunately, my dentist is very good at explaining, clearly and concisely, so he has on occasion filled in when I had questions.

I guess the orthodontist is where I was twenty or twenty-five years ago: toward the beginning of his career, with enough experience to do his job, but with plenty of room to grow.

 

Piano for Young Beginners

For me, teaching young beginners is like having a toddler around, or a puppy: cute, enjoyable, so much fun, and so incredibly much work. Lesson preparation has to be immaculate while the actual lesson requires utmost flexibility.

I love it, but it tends to burn me out. So I have decided to accept only one or two young beginners per year. On my waiting list was a now 6 yr old girl who lives around the corner from me, literally across my backyard. Two weeks ago yesterday, we started lessons. Because she lives so close she comes every day for a short lesson. And I love it. We learn a tiny little bit something new, adding on every day. No pressure to cover more material to keep her busy for the next 3 or 4 days (normally, beginners come twice a week), no pressure to learn an entire song in one lesson. One day maybe 10 days ago, her younger sister spotted my rhythm instruments and rain sticks when they came into the studio. I could tell that both girls were curious, so we played around with different rhythm instruments and took turns making sounds with the different rain sticks. We didn’t really “learn” anything that day, we just explored, and if this had been a traditional lesson I would have felt bad for not really “teaching” something specific. But since I got to see her again the very next day there was no pressure to accomplish  specific things. It feels beautifully and luxuriously relaxed.

2015-08-22 13.27.43Because I get to see her every day right now, she is progressing much faster than the average beginner. And because there is so little time – just one day – for her to forget something she learned at a lesson, or to spend much time practicing something incorrectly, our lessons can focus on revisiting old and learning new things, rather than correcting or re-learning.

Her attention span could definitely handle longer lessons, so in about a week we’ll move on to three lessons per week, later in the semester two lessons per week. She already knows four songs (in different keys), is working on a fifth, and between playing all of her songs and working on theory concepts – musical alphabet, key names, finger numbers, beginning note reading – we run out of time with the shorter lessons.

I wish I could see all of my students for lessons every day …

Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

Not exactly new, but definitely worth repeating:

Psychology of Parenting: Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

Po Bronson Debunks Conventional Parenting Wisdom that All Praise Is Good for Kids
By CYNTHIA MCFADDEN and DEBORAH APTON
ABC News (online) Sept. 3, 2009—

For writer and father Po Bronson, yelling praise from the sidelines of a soccer game to his child has always been part of his parental territory. And what parent hasn’t done the same, showering gushing platitudes like “You played great” or “You’re so smart” at their children at every twist and turn?

But praising your kids, Bronson says now, is what can ruin them. In his latest book, “NurtureShock,” written with Ashley Merryman, the science journalist explores some misconceptions about raising children and how certain modern parenting strategies, such as excessively praising children, can do more harm than good.

[…]  “Kids become fixated on maintaining the image of being smart, of never getting anything wrong in front of people, of always looking like they’ve gotten everything right, of making it look effortless,” said Bronson. “Because if you show effort, it’s a sign you can’t cut it on your natural gifts. And so they make safe choices. They choose classes that won’t challenge them. They choose teachers and projects where they know they can get an A.”

Bronson said he’s trying to reform and all parents should too — for their the sake of their children.

[…]  “The difference is a child who is truly motivated and interested in learning, versus a child who wants to memorize so they can get a good grade so they can keep hearing how smart they are,” Bronson explained.

A decade of groundbreaking research suggests that constant praise can lead kids to lose self-confidence, not gain it, and make them actually perform worse, not better.

Bronson relies heavily on the research of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.  […] Over the past decade, Dweck has conducted a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders from different socio-economic groups across the country. The research provided the basis for one chapter of Bronson’s new book and points to a stunning result: Not all praise is created equal. Telling children they’re smart can actually hurt them, and you get a far better result if you praise children for challenging themselves, and for effort.

“Nightline” asked Dweck and one of her graduate students to show us how it works.

Mary, 9, and Jameson, 10, were given a series of IQ puzzles and asked to work on them silently. At the end, the researcher gave each child a score. The research assistant praised Mary for being smart, while Jameson was praised for working hard.

After reviewing Mary’s answers, the research assistant lauded her: “Wow, you did really well at these problems. You got 8 — that’s a great score. You must be really smart at these problems.”  If Dweck’s theory holds, Mary will want to continue to look smart, and when given the choice, will opt for a test that shows it — not something more challenging where they she could learn more.

In the next phase, when Mary was asked by the research assistant what kind of problems she would like to work on next, “problems that are pretty easy so you’ll do well, problems that you’re pretty good at so you can show that you’re smart, or problems that you’ll learn a lot from even if you don’t look so smart,” Mary chose problems to show that she’s smart.

“Problems that I’m pretty good at — so I can show I’m smart,” Mary told the researcher. “I am smart.”

Consider the difference with Jameson, who was praised for how hard he’d worked — not for being smart.  “Well, you did really well on these problems. You got 8 — that’s a really high score! You must have worked really hard on these problems,” the researcher said. Jameson agreed.

Dweck’s research suggests that Jameson — armed with praise for his hard work — will want to challenge himself — even though he got some problems wrong.  Following course, Jameson opted for “problems I’ll learn a lot from even if I don’t look so smart.”

Bingo. But Dweck took the experiment one step further. Both kids were immediately given another test — one that was much more difficult than the first and way beyond their grade.

While Mary actually performed extremely well, the researcher was discouraging, and asked her why she seemed to have more trouble with the second set of problems. A deflated Mary said that she wasn’t smart enough.  “There are other people in my class that are smarter than me. … I’m not really that smart because of that, because I’m not used to them [the problems],” she said. “I worked hard as I can, so I think I’m not smart enough. But I do think I’m really, really smart but not ready for the other problems. But I want to do them when I get home.”

Jameson, who got only three answers right to Mary’s six on the very difficult second test, remained undaunted, moving onto a third test and nailing it — getting nine problems right.

But Mary seemed to crumble, getting only three right on the third test. And remember, she’d actually done twice as well as Jameson on the difficult second test. The point, Dweck said, is that praising children’s intelligence makes them less resilient when they hit a bump in the road and less willing to challenge themselves.

“After they’re praised for their effort, they enjoy being challenged,” Dweck explained. “What we value here is the practice, the effort, the trying of many strategies, and then they can feel satisfied as long as they’ve been engaged in that way. But if you say we value how smart you are, how enjoyable can it be if you’re not shining?”

Bronson said the sense of failure, induced by Dwek’s experiment, made Mary perform worse than she could have. In turn, Jameson, who was praised for effort, learned strategies for concentrating and facing challenges.  “At the end of the day, on the medium test, he ends up doing a better job than Mary, who had actually performed at a higher level up until then,” Dweck said.

[…] While Dweck’s research suggests parents need to stop praising their kids in a generalized way, with catch phrases like “You’re so smart” “You’re great,” praise given correctly — for effort or for specific accomplishments — “I really liked how you passed the ball to Johnny” or “You worked really hard on the field today” can be helpful, as opposed to “You’re the best soccer player ever!”

[…]Psychologist Florrie Ng was interested in studying cross-cultural parenting. She conducted research while she was at the University of Illinois, with children and their mothers in Illinois and Hong Kong. She tested kids with a similar pattern-matching test used by Dweck.

During a five-minute break, American mothers were given their child’s score. They were then told that their child did not perform well, regardless of their child’s actual score, and were then instructed to talk to their child about the test. During the sit-down with their kids, the American mothers did not mention their child’s “poor” score, but instead offered their child praise and presents, regardless.

“We saw them ignoring — completely ignoring — their child’s failure. And not willing to help them, and if anything, praising them for their intelligence, or saying, ‘Don’t worry, ‘You’re going to do great,'” Bronson said.

By contrast, when mothers in Hong Kong were told their child hadn’t performed well on the same test, they addressed the issue with their children, Bronson explained, working through the problems with their children and encouraged them to stay focused.

When the American and Chinese children were tested again, following the one-on-one sit-down with their mothers, the Chinese performed 33 percent better than in earlier tests. Ng plants to continue her research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“You might think that these Chinese mothers were cold and inconsiderate and cruel and harsh to their children. But when you watch the videotapes, these mothers are touching their child. They’re loving, they have their arm around their child, they are stroking them, they are just as affectionate as the American mothers were,” Bronson said.

“As American parents, we can be loving and affectionate and supportive at the same time as we are directing our child’s attention to better strategies to improve and to learn,” Bronson said.  “The child wants to do well on the test; help the child do well on the test. Don’t do things that are just going to make the child underperform on the next test.”

[…] “I became a social praiser,” Bronson said. “And I started to feel like — that it wasn’t my child. My child was doing great at the new praise regimen. It was I who was suffering. The praise junkie wasn’t my child; it was me.”

But Bronson confirmed that there’s no limit on one kind of support. Unconditional love is something parents can repeat and repeat.  “Telling your child you love them is something else,” Bronson said. “You can tell your child you love them all you want.”

Please read the complete article at http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/nurtureshock-parenting-tips-praising-kids-hurt/Story?id=8475074&page=1

What good are piano lessons?

I believe they are called “blanket statements”.

“Taking piano lessons is good for you / your child / your IQ / etc.”

You’ve heard it, perhaps tried to heed that advice.  Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t.

While there is some research on the topic, the problem is that “Piano lessons are good for you” is as accurate as “Eating food will make you fat”. Everyone knows that, yes indeed, some food will make you fat, but it also depends on how much of which food we are talking about. People don’t seem to be that descerning when it comes to piano lessons. Piano lessons are good for you, right?

Wrong.

Remember the adage, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent”? I’d like to add, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Good piano lessons are good for you.

Some 40 years ago, after my first piano teacher with whom I had studied for only a year or two got married and moved away, we were faced with the challenge of finding a new teacher. Our piano tuner, a gentle and quiet man, recommended his mother. I don’t know what her qualifications were, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this woman taught piano lessons on a tall and dark upright piano in a dark corner of her dark living room; piano lessons that for a while destroyed my love for the piano.

While my first teacher, a young and enthusiastic woman, was good (which I didn’t realize until much much later when I read through some of the assignments she had written), I didn’t really learn how to practice. I was kind of lucky – or perhaps not, depending on how you look at it -, because I had some talent, and excellent ears, and faked my way through the note-reading exercises. My new teacher would get upset about my lack of sight-reading skills, urging me during our dreaded four-hand sight-reading sessions sternly, “Keep going!!!” – which is exactly what someone with no sight-reading skills can not do.

Sight-reading was not the only thing I wasn’t good at. I had no clue what it meant to practice. If I did sit down at the piano between lessons, I’d play through a couple of songs, usually not the ones I was assigned because those were “hard” and I didn’t know them, I didn’t know what they were supposed to sound like, and I didn’t know how to practice and I didn’t like them anyway. I had no sense of rhythm, I couldn’t count. My teacher managed to identify my weaknesses but that’s where she stopped; she was unable to help me overcome them. All in a tense, rigid, dark atmosphere. What I learned from her was that I wasn’t good enough. I hated lessons, and I still hadn’t learned how to practice, nor how to read, nor count.

After a while, I don’t remember how long I took lessons, my mother who by nature and nurture does not quit (“You started it, now you stick with it!”) said, “You know, if you want to stop lessons with her, that would be ok.”  She also made sure that, after a break (one year?), I auditioned with a new teacher who then became not only my new piano teacher, but also mentor, guide, coach, and solid rock in my tumultuous teenage years. I was lucky.

~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~

Perhaps because I love music and the piano in particular, and I love learning and studying and teaching, I think that we do not need any outside reason to study music. If studying the piano does help with math, languages, etc., then all the better, but that shouldn’t be the main reason to take piano lessons.

Another aspect:

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of case-history collections such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), during an interview about his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, had the following answer to one of the interviewer’s questions:

From the perspective of neurological development, is it important to give music lessons to your kids?

Sacks: One can become a creative and good human being without music lessons. But it does look as if fairly intensive musical training can promote the development of various parts of the brain, which may facilitate other non-musical cognitive powers.

Please note the first part of his answer. Also note the fact that he specifically says “fairly intensive musical training” (not just any old piano lesson) and says, “can promote” and “may facilitate”. A much more realistic answer, and therefore more honest, than the blanket “piano lessons are good for you.”

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Sad update, just two days later: Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. He talks about it here.

In Defense of Key Signatures, Accidentals, Double Sharps and Double Flats

In the February 2009 issue of American Music Teacher (AMT), published by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) of which I am a member, there is under “Impromptu” a short informational (infomercial?) entry for “Simplified Music Notation”.  As a teacher of all ages and all levels with a special interest in brain research and Special Education, I am naturally interested in anything that can make a student’s life (or mine) easier, less complicated.  The idea of a “Simplified Music Notation” seemed to fit that bill, so I looked at the website.

I have, in another post on this site, written about the issue of simplification, and the fact that there’s a right way and then there is a wrong way to simplify.  The right way maintains the spirit of the music but makes life easier for the performer – such as redistributing notes between the hands, or leaving out doubled notes in chords that are too large for a small hand.  When simplification is done right, you don’t hear a difference; as a matter of fact, it likely sounds better than the original because the performer is now technically able to play with expression whereas the original would either have been impossible to play or so strained that expression was a lost cause.

As someone who didn’t learn to sight-play until grad school, I had missed out on a lot of literature, growing up, because it was too time-consuming to learn to read the many notes – unless I knew how the piece sounded in which case I easily played by ear, using the score as a last resort to check on notes I wasn’t sure about.  Learning a piece I didn’t know was piece-meal work:  I’d laboriously figure out the notes in one measure, play it a couple of times until I had it memorized, then go on to the next measure, and from there string the measures together.  Amazingly, this worked for Chopin Ballades, Scherzi, Etudes, Schubert Sonatas and the like.   It did, however, not work for Hindemith.  I had somehow managed to never play Hindemith before, so my grad school professor assigned the Second Piano Sonata.  Progress was glacial at best.  Dr. Edwards grew frustrated and finally, suspecting that my reading skills (or, better, lack thereof) were to blame, put an easy Schumann piece (Melody? or something like that from the Album for the Young) in front of me, “Play!!”  It was a disaster.

As someone who suffered the consequences of not learning to sight-play until grad school, I now take great care to teach my students how to read and sight-play.  There is more to sight-playing than knowing your notes: sight-playing requires horizontal thinking and understanding, anticipation, and the development of  a secure knowledge of the keyboard topography – your fingers have to know where the keys are without looking down.   You also have to be able to “think” in different keys, so that there is an immediate knowledge of what to expect from, say, Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor – there will be B flats and E flats (from the key signature), and accidental F sharps, etc.  This is a skill I aim to develop in all of my students.

While my approach to teaching how to read works, I am always interested in learning more and perhaps finding a system which works even better.

According to their website,

Simplified Music Notation is a new notation designed to make sight-reading easier. It was originally created for musicians with dyslexia, memory impairments and other disabilities, but has gained interest from a broad range of professional and amateur musicians.

Sharps and flats are given by the shape of the notehead. This eliminates the necessity of relying on the key signature and dispenses with the need for accidentals.

The key signature is still there, along with all the information in the original score, but many of the unnecessary complexities of reading music have been removed.

“Simplified Music Notation”  promises

You no longer have to remember

— the key signature
— accidentals throughout the bar
— cancelling accidentals at the end of the bar
— transposing double flats and sharps

Wow.  What a relief!

Or is it?

Unfortunately, this system is based on a couple of incorrect assumptions.  According to this system, reading difficulties stem from key signatures, accidentals, and double flats and sharps.  (I don’t know what they mean by “transposing double flats and sharps”.)

If that were so, then my attempt at reading that easy Schumann piece should have been a piece of cake:  I distinctly remember that it was in the key of C (key signature: no sharps, no flats); there may have been one lonely F# toward the end of the first line.  If they were to take that piece and transcribe and convert it to Simplified Music Notation, it would not look any different, except for that F# which would alter the shape of the note head instead of having a # in front of it – hardly a simplification.

Next, it has been my experience that the difficulties that dyslexic students have with reading words/sentences, are different from the difficulties of note reading.  I have had dyslexic students who read music with relative ease, and I have had students who had no trouble at all with reading language but couldn’t read music to save their lives.

Then, they claim to eliminate “the necessity of relying on the key signature”.  While it is true that I tell my students that if a note sounds wrong, “check the key signature, then the clef (Right Hand is not always in the treble clef, etc.), then accidentals” – thereby acknowledging that remembering the key signature may take some effort – I also explain to them that the key signature is like their zip code:  it gives you a map, it tells you where to find what, it puts things into perspective, into a relationship.  If you are used to (skilled at) thinking in different keys, then playing a piece in A flat will pose no problems that could be traced to having to “rely” on the key signature.  On the contrary, having the key signature, thinking in the key, will help you read because you are familiar with the map, you know what to expect.  – If reading in A flat is a problem for you, then perhaps you are not ready to read a piece in A flat.  Simplifying the notation only covers up that problem. (This by the way does not mean that you shouldn’t play that piece in A flat – there are other ways to learn a piece than read it.)

I suppose, the worst here is the issue of double sharps and flats, as well as “white key” sharps and flats such as E#.  They “simplify” the notation and write the note of the white key.  While it is important for students to learn that E# is a white key, it is equally important that they learn that E# and F are not the same!  Yes, they are played on the same key, but they are not the same note.  Just like B flat and A sharp are not the same.  I like to do an experiment with a beginning student who has just figured out, by ear, an F major scale (black key – yay!) by asking what the notes were.  Many students will call that black key “A sharp” but it takes just a moment for me to explain that it has to be called B flat because we are replacing the B, not the A.  What is altered when you use enharmonic notes is the shape of the melody, and, importantly: the visual image (and cue).   Imagine an F# minor scale:  harmonic minor will have an E# in the scale.  Simplified Notation will write the scale as F#-G#-A-B-C#-D-F-F#.  That is not a scale!  It doesn’t look like a scale, it violates the visual image we have of a scale.

Or take a highly patterned piece such as Robert Vandall’s Prelude in G major:  The left hand pattern always starts with a half step down, then up again to the first note, then down an octave: G-F#-G-(low)G for instance.  Visually, it is instantly recognizable: one down, one up, octave down.  The pattern has implications for the fingering:  1-2-1-5, with the second finger always a half step below the first – meaning: very next key.  Learning, or sight-playing this piece, we put the visual cue and the fingering together.  In most measures, this pattern is followed by a repetition of the first three notes, creating:  G-F#-G-(low)G-G-F#-G, etc. (Did you notice the palindrome?)  Because we have looked at this and analyzed it,  we now know that we don’t need to “read” the last three notes – because we know that they are the same as the first three.  Actually, we don’t need to read any notes beyond the first because of the pattern!  So, there goes the issue of having to remember accidentals lasting through the end of the measure.   On the second page, there are two measures with (the same) double sharp: G#-Fx-G#.  Visually, we instantly recognize this as “the same” as before = same fingering, etc.  With Simplified Notation, this would look totally different:  G#-G-G# – we would have to think about it to recognize that it is actually the same pattern.  Destroyed is the consistency, the visual cue.  Yes, I am sure students can learn to play this piece with Simplified Notation, but they will have missed out on really understanding this piece.  And I don’t see how the Simplified Notation would have helped with memory.  Understanding patterns (visual, fingering, aural, and more) goes such a long way toward memorizing; I’ve been known to say to my (new) students, when they ask whether they “have to” memorize a piece, “If you really use your brain learning this piece, you cannot help but memorize along the way!”  (We know there’s more to memory than this, but it’s a fantastic and reliable start!)

The “unnecessary complexities of reading music” do not come from the key signature, accidentals, and double sharps and flats.  Music notation, the way it is, is a marvelous system that makes sense.  It has clear-cut rules that are mathematical in nature, they have to do with ratio, absolute distance,  etc. – unlike other musical signs, such as signs that indicate touch, tempo or dynamics:  there are (and should be!) infinite variations of staccato for instance.

Whenever I hear the cry for stricter rules here in town for – take your pick: non-smoking, vicious dogs, speed limits, I think: we do not need stricter rules, we need to enforce the rules we have!  The rules are there, but they need to be obeyed and enforced.

So, for music notation, what we need is not a new system with new rules, we simply need to adhere to the rules we have!  The rules say, for instance, that the barline cancels the accidental(s) of the previous measure.  But what do we have in the next measure?  A gratuitous, “friendly-reminder” natural/sharp/flat.  THAT is what clutters the score!  THAT is what makes reading unnecessarily difficult because it demands our attention, and then the decision that we can ignore the symbol – what a waste of brain power!  I can’t tell you how many times a confused student has asked, “Why is there a natural here in this measure?  I thought the barline cancels the accidental??”

When I shared with Mark who has a black belt in Karate my misgivings about this kind of simplification, he immediately had this story:

I told you about sparring with the Tae Kwon Do people.

I was paired with a woman who was perhaps 5 or 6 inches shorter than me. She had beautiful kicks and tremendous flexibility. Her spinning back kick was consistently higher than my head. Her form during the kick and after was atrocious.
During the kick she was not looking at the target. At best her line of sight was 90º to the side, and at worst she was looking 180º in the wrong direction. Imagine throwing a pitch with a baseball. You look at the catcher’s mitt, you look at the target. You don’t throw the ball with your eyes closed and hope that it heads in the right direction. Without looking at the target you have no control over the kick or pitch.
After throwing the kick she ended up facing away from me. Her back was completely exposed. In the karate-do world I came from the back was a legitimate target. Exposing your back to your opponent was called  mubobi or a defenseless posture. In point sparring you were giving your opponent a free point, on the street you were giving your attacker your life.
While her form was beautiful it was completely incorrect. She had no visual control over where the kick was going, she consistently missed the target, and she finished the kick facing the wrong way. I never had to duck or block her kicks, and I always had a free shot to her back or the back of her head after she completed her spin.
She was offended when I pointed this out, and indignant when I started tapping the back of her head with my fist each time. “That’s not a target!” she would say. Maybe in Tae Kwon Do it isn’t a target, but in the real world it is a target.
Her instructors had done her a huge disservice; they had allowed her to advance through their rank system with the belief that what she was doing was an effective martial arts technique when in fact it was anything but. Her form was beautiful, her style was flawless, but what she was doing wasn’t self defense or martial arts.

Using Simplified Music Notation violates the rational logic of music notation (the way it is) and gives our students a false sense of reading “skills”.

Update January 1, 2015:

Last year I bought a new book by Diane Hidy, “Attention Grabbers” (published in 2012). The pieces are attractive, immensely playable, and, best of all, easy to read. I so appreciate especially this “notational difference” she mentions on page 3: “Pick-up notes appear before each new phrase on a new system rather than at the end of the previous system.” While definitely a break with tradition, this is not really a simplification, just a more logical way of notating music because it allows the student to immediately recognize patterns – also because the number of measures in a system conforms to the pattern or phrase length – the wisest choice an editor can make. Which means that most of the time we get four measures in a system, but occasionally six or seven if the phrase length dictates it. Which also means that occasionally – when the music moves in half notes for instance – the notes seem a bit drawn out, and any other editor/publisher would have insisted on squishing more measures into the system.