All teachers know that solid note recognition is the first step towards scaling the vast worlds of repertoire out there. Understanding how a “tau-gay” corresponds to a certain key on the keyboard is critical. It paves the way to recognising other elements (e.g. key signatures, accidentals, rests, dynamics, tempo markings, articulation markings, playing directions).
I gave some thought into how we, as teachers, tend to impart this fundamental component of piano-playing to our students. Based on my conversations with friends, and drawing from my own experiences during childhood and as a teacher, I consolidated some of the common approaches employed, and I felt it may be useful to think about them more deeply, in the following ways:
- How do we make these approaches more interesting for the young beginner?
- Are they universally applicable or effective – for all ages, for different types of learners?
- Are there any controversial aspects to these approaches?
1) Approach 1: Sets of two and three black keys, locate Middle C
Explaining the structure of the piano as comprising two repeating “sets” — one with C to E surrounding 2 black keys, the other with F to B surrounding 3 black keys — is a staple in many teachers’ toolkits. This simple 2/3 black key pattern recognition approach may be simple in theory, however, it is demanding and complex when it comes to delivery. I have been trawling the web and tinkering about for a long time trying to find more effective ways to go about it.
Lubov Valois’s “post-it” method
For young children (~ below 7-8 years of age), the vastness of a full 88 key keyboard is at the same time exciting and overwhelming. Children at this age need some time and warming up in order to become friends with the keys, and to recognise how these “sets” of 2/3 black keys signal the position of the various notes from C to B in an octave. Of the various delivery techniques I found on the internet, the most effective one in my opinion (after some experimentation) was Dr Lubov Valois’s “post-it” method, where she got her student to use different colour post-it pads to mark out the location of these various key sets. I think her amazing ability to relate to the child is something to emulate too.
Dr Valois’ method of getting the child to paste and remove the post-its has an intimate kinesthetic element too, as it helps the student remember the position of the 2/3-key sets through action and reinforcement.
Games involving a piano tuner (usually in the form of a cute toy) and score card
I have experimented with using some other minigames to improve note recognition ability. I craft these minigames using a cutesy little piano tuner I have — the tuner shows the note played by the student, and if they play the correct note that I had asked for, I find a way to affirm or communicate that, such as giving a star on scoresheet that I create for the minigame.
Typically, I structure these note recognition games around different narratives or themes. It is really up to your creativity (and how much fun you want to have!) Some possible games I’ve concocted include the following, though the narrative depends on the particular trinket you use or the prevailing season:
- Froggy (attached as a paper ring to the child’s finger) needs to find Mummy Frog (a frog tuner located at the far right end of the keyboard). But it can step on only “C” lily pads to get there! Starting from here (lowest C note), can you help it step on all the “C”s to go back to Mummy? (of course you can repeat this for other notes, like “D” lily pads”. You may want to even mark out the lily pads, although there are concerns on the pedagogical drawbacks of labelling, as discussed below)
- Christmas is coming and the reindeer needs to drop presents to kids living in “G” houses! Help them get their presents for a warm fuzzy Christmas. (If this is a Christmas themed lesson, you can throw in seasonal pieces or duets as a part of your lesson)
Demonstrating the concept on a shorter keyboard
One way to help instill the concept more easily is to use a shorter keyboard. Different teachers have different views about this though. Some feel that it does not expose a young student to the full range of a keyboard, and that psychologically, children should not be deprived of exposure to such an “awe” affect as it captures their imagination. Others feel that it may be a good primer. Again, not every piano teacher has multiple keyboards of varying sizes, and kids do respond very differently.
Personally I am okay with using truncated keyboards as a transitional teaching tool (e.g. a cardboard representation of just 1 octave, with the 2 black key set in one colour, and the 3 black key set in another colour) to demonstrate the concept. However, I would personally like to have my students start roaming on the keyboard with live sounds as soon as possible — nothing beats seeing them enjoy the tinkering process.
The next two methods are slightly more controversial, and some of the more adventurous teachers have used them to varying degrees and effects. To teachers — I am just putting it out here for your own exploration and sensing.
2) Approach 2: Labelling the keys
Another common technique: labelling the keys on your keyboard, to provide a visual aid for the student trying to find its corresponding note on the stave. The most common method is to place stickers of the letter alphabets (or even write them using removable markers) on the relevant keys. Some even have the stave representations on the sticker itself:
Labelling with alphabet note names are of course not the only way to do this. Over time, teachers and musicians have found creative ways to label keys, including colour codes and animals with names that start with the corresponding letter (cat for C, dog for D, etc.). These constitute one way to pique the interest of kids, and also to get them to associate physical keys with note representations. After all, effective pedagogy of note recognition skills is not only about imparting identification skills, but also about cultivating interest.
Labelling has had its fair share of debates, with some teachers concerned over whether it would lead to dependency on the stickers, rather than on processing the notes and going through the hard work of finding them on the keyboard. Opponents are concerned that students eventually fail to develop a sense of keyboard geography. Proponents however feel that the appropriate labels spice things up, and a child interested in matching colours/animals is always a better situation than an uninterested child.
My own position tends to lie more towards the former — I do believe that labels, if used for a protracted period, may cause some dependence. Also, you may want to move them to develop the intuitive sense of the keyboard without looking down at the keys (an important skill for sight reading). But I am personally eclectic enough to use it as a gimmick to drum up interest, perhaps for one or two lessons, before I progress on to other methods (e.g. the tuner game) which does not compromise the recognition process. Association should be an aid, not a replacement mechanism that will hijack one of the most enjoyable experiences in a piano student’s baby steps.
3) Approach 3: Technology and games
Ah, the wonders of technology! Today the entire piano keyboard can even be ported on to a touch-screen platform, complete with minigames and even DDR-like applications (just like the ever popular Piano Master above). I think the consensus on this, based on my peers’ practices, are that these remain strictly “sweeteners” or “desserts” that they dish out to the well-performing/hardworking student as an occassional or rare reward.
I do believe that on-screen technology time needs to be controlled as screen movements are a source of great visual and kinesthetic stimuli. This tends to capture more attention than the piano keyboard itself, and may not be very ideal for young students. In this regard, some friends have also highlighted the importance of parents’ cooperation on “device discipline”, i.e. not throwing the iPad to the child while running off to buy a meal at the kopitiam. Moreover, rhythms and note accuracy are gametized in ways that may not actually have much musical meaning, so while we want the child to develop some hand-eye coordination in a fun way, I think this is best dished out as an incentive and motivator.
With that, if there are teachers amongst you keen on checking out some interesting apps that facilitate note recognition, here is a good site that you can look at.
A recurring tension that teachers have to manage would be that of making the note recognition learning process interesting, while preventing the child from developing crutch mechanisms that would carry over into his later stages of learning. Teachers would have to be very mindful of the amount of stimuli in the various approaches, as well as other factors such as the student’s age and learning style.