By: Hellene Hiner
Many people think that notes are like letters, only in musical terms and that we have to treat them the same way. It is not so!
A music score is a map with coordinates. If we don't see the entire picture, we miss the whole point of reading music. By pointing at each note it is as if the piano teacher highlights it with a spotlight. But the rest remains in darkness.
We read books in one direction – from left to right or from right to left. By doing it, we learn to shift our eye focus, to follow with our pointer and to copy words in the same exact direction. In a music score there is no consistent direction, because music notes go up and down as they progress left to right, but when we try to play them on the piano we have to move our focus and hands right AND left at the same time.
Do you think it is easy? Take a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Now write down this sentence: "I love my child and I want music to be part of his life!" But write it in column, from top to bottom. Isn't it a little uncomfortable? This is because it is completely contrary to the normal method of writing. This might be called a "Mirror reflection skill", because people commonly learn how to do many things by looking at the world as if it were huge mirror. Or as our young children might say, “Monkey see – monkey do”.
In English every letter is individual and unique. It has original graphics and an original 'name'. This is why in school children learn one letter at a time, because it is very important to differentiate one letter from another. We train our vision to see the difference.
But music notes are graphically presented as similar looking circles. They also have only 7 names despite the fact that there more sounds then letters of the alphabet. To teach each note at a time just does not make any sense! Individual features of every note become apparent only in relationship to a group of others, much as we learn even and odd numbers, group books by age of readers, genre and in alphabetical order.
Generally speaking, written music is not literature – it is a spatial map. Reading and playing a music score is more like piloting a space ship: you have to push the right button at the right time in order to get where you want to go. By pushing a wrong button (or key) you can easily get lost in space and in time.
You have to be really good with your fingers and to be able to see exactly where you are located, where you are planning to be and how to get there. Bach once said, that to play an organ is very simple: all you have to do is to push the right keys at the right time. Every good pilot has to have excellent coordination, accurate eye, and ability to navigate; otherwise the passengers will need to abandon ship!
At first glance the solution to the problem is obvious: the student has to learn theory, memorize notes and piano keys, and play different exercises to improve coordination. All these preparations will help prepare him to sit in front of a sheet of music and to begin to read a music score with confidence. Unfortunately, in many cases it just isn't happening. Why? Because…
Perception of music, coordination, vision and hearing have to team up from the start.
Otherwise they will quarrel. Let's try to imagine this "wonderful" process in a form of a little play with characters.
When skills quarrel One act play
Perception: Oh, these theory drills make me sick! I wish you'd play a nice music piece for me!
Coordination: Aren’t you happy to hear my exercises???
Perception: Your exercises are boring! I am tired of them! I want real music!
Vision: You are so selfish! Do you ever consider others? Who has to deal with reading? You? No! I have to be ALL EYES! But does anybody care?
Perception: Hooray! Finally they have given us a song! Of course it is not 'Moonlight Sonata", but at least something nice. 'Twinkle-Twinkle, Little Star'! Very simple!
Coordination: Simple?! Are you kidding? I have to manage 10 fingers of both hands! How simple is THAT?
Perception: So what? You’ve played plenty of exercises with both hands!
Coordination: How could you dare to compare! There I had to play the same pattern repeatedly -- that was simple! This nonsense music twists and turns and it’s not at all predictable like the exercises that you play! This is rubbish! I don't work this way!
Perception: Well, why don't we get vision involved then? It ought to help you!
Coordination: Oh, really? What good will that do? Vision got stuck already on the very first note, and is still thinking where to find the other two.
Ears: Hey, how long do I have to wait for you? Stop dragging your feet. I am falling asleep here! You should be ashamed of yourselves!
Coordination: Oh, quit trying to be the boss! I have a heck of a lot of keys here – and you are doing nothing, just waiting. Don't you see that I have to rummage here in complete darkness? My hands are tensed from the fear of plunging into something wrong. Hey, Vision, have mercy, HELP!!!!
Vision: Oh, yeah? If I take my eye off of this note, there is no way I can find it again. Try without me, please, crawl down the keys, all right?
Ears: My goodness gracious! What are you doing? Are you out of your mind? You are hurting me! You’re hitting all of the wrong notes!
Coordination: Oh, I beg your pardon… There are so many keys and I am the only one working, darn it all…
Vision: Oh-oh… Where am I? Somebody help!
Coordination: Easy to say! I am barely moving myself…
Ears: Enough already! I’m out of here! I am not a detective who can find music in a few false notes played with the tempo of a dying turtle.
Perception: Guys, what is the problem? Why don't you use the right fingering? Why don't you keep any rhythm? Are you sleeping? Didn't you hear what the teacher said in pure English: “speed up and play with expression!”
Coordination, Vision and Ear: Are you crazy? Do it yourself! Express as much as you want!
Perception: Is this a revolt? What am I supposed to do now? If you can't play such a simple song, I am just worthless.
Vision, Ear and Coordination: Yes, you are a blockhead indeed. We are all a bunch of blockheads to be honest! There’s no chance that we'll ever become proficient. We’d better just give up. Our teacher is right: not everyone can be a Mozart!
All this "drama" is happening in many music classes every day, because the skills required to play the piano are getting developed separately at first. To prevent it from happening we have to remember a story about the bicycle. Here it is: