songs on white keys

In the course of discussing ideal first pieces for beginning piano students, one of my teenage students suggested “the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music”  – not so much because it is easy but because she loves it, and “everybody knows it.”  She proceeded to quickly play through the tune – melody only.   She started from C, and curiously, played the entire song on white keys only.  She didn’t seem to notice? or mind? that it didn’t sound quite right.  There are a few modulations in this song which necessitate a few sharps here and there, and a chromatic passing tone (B flat) at the end.  As this song wasn’t really the topic of our discussion I didn’t want to spend too much time on this, so I just quickly played the tune for her, correctly, and pointed out that she had missed some black keys.  We proceeded to other pedagogical issues and then her repertoire. 

On my long way home – it is two hours from Manhattan to Olathe – I kept thinking about how she could have missed the sharps and the B flat in this song.  Played on white keys only, it sounds kind of like the song, but not really, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t hear that.  I concluded that she must have picked out the tune by ear and “all white keys” was as close as she could come to the real thing.  I also concluded that the sharps would make sense once she’d know about modulation – something we hadn’t covered yet, at least not in enough detail to relate to this song.  So, always looking for a chance to teach a new theory concept, I planned to introduce modulation at the next lesson. 

I started yesterday’s lesson by sharing with her that I had been thinking about the song, and my conclusion that the necessary black keys would make more sense once I taught her about modulation.  She had a smile on her face and was getting ready to say something but I was too enthusiastic to teach about modulation, I didn’t want to stop and listen to what she had to say.  Short intro to modulation, demonstration, she got it, and then, when I finally finished, she spoke up. 

The reason why she had played the song on white keys only, she explained, was that that’s how her school music teacher had taught it to her class.  I didn’t understand.  Surely her music teacher wouldn’t teach a song with wrong notes?  Well, she continued, white keys only is easier than a black key here and there, and the teacher had explained that teaching about sharps and flats would be too difficult and the students wouldn’t get it and that’s why she left them out.  Apparently none of the other students noticed or were bothered by this.

So, I suppose we could, in order to – simplify?, also play Für Elise on white keys only:  try it, play E-D-E-D-E-B-D-C-A.

Or we could teach to spell with consonants only, leave out vowels. 

Simplification gone wrong.


Simplifying and arranging is a skill, it is actually something that I include in my lessons: how to simplify without losing the essence of the story. 

I refuse to teach – I won’t even listen to – “easy arrangements” of piano literature.  Things like the Moonlight Sonata transposed to D minor, condensed to one page and arranged to fit a five-finger “position”, etc.  (heard it at a Talent Show once).

But skillful simplifying teaches the students to find that which is most important.  Which note out of a difficult-to-reach chord can be left out without changing the character of the chord?  Which of the way-too-many notes in a melody can be cut without losing “the melody”?  Whether or not we actually end up playing a (slightly) simplified version, the students have gained a greater understanding of that which they are playing. 

3 thoughts on “songs on white keys

  1. Mark Nichols

    Not only is a “teacher” who doesn’t fully explain concepts because “it would be too difficult and the students wouldn’t get it” doing her students a disservice by not teaching them, she is doing harm by implying they lack something necessary to understand the concept. It is the *teachers* responsibility to prepare the students to grasp new concepts and incorporate them into their understanding of the subject at hand.

    The unspoken message that “you aren’t good enough” is hugely damaging to self esteem.

  2. Sibylle Post author

    It reminds me of how, when I was a young child, I learned to count: I got all the way to one hundred, and then, in order to simplify (and bolster my self-esteem?), I was taught to continue, “one hundred, two hundred, three hundred,” and so on. I was so proud.

    Imagine my embarrassment and subsequent anger when, some time later, I-don’t-remember-who heard me count and laughed at me, “That’s not how one counts!! It goes ‘one hundred, one hundred one, one hundred two,’…”

    I wish whoever taught me to count the wrong way had had the guts to say something like, “Honey, beyond ‘one hundred’ is too difficult just yet; we’ll save that for later” rather than teach me incorrectly just because I was pestering him/her to teach me more.

  3. Pingback: elfenbein klaviermusik notes » Blog Archive » In Defense of Key Signatures, Accidentals, Double Sharps and Double Flats

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