Learning the names of notes can be one of the first stumbling blocks for beginner pupils. But it doesn’t have to be


Photo: Yan Krukau

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This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of The Strad

‘Why can’t she play anything?’ wailed one of my pedagogy students the other day. 

’What do you mean? Has she had a nasty skiing accident? Both arms in plaster?’

’No I mean she just can’t play. If I put anything in front of her, even the easiest piece, she doesn’t get it.’

’You mean she can’t read it yet? Have you tried playing it to her first?’ 

’That would be cheating.’

In my experience, string teachers have an obsession with the letter names of notes. It might not be quite as bad as the obsession piano teachers have with them, but pretty bad all the same. Some are so fixated that their pupils are deemed unable to play anything at all if they can’t do the musical equivalent of spelling it out first. 

There are teachers who devolved responsibility to the piano teacher or to a theory workbook, and others who cave in and pencil the note names in over the music. Anything to get those bothersome letters learnt. 

Why? What does the name of the note actually mean in the early stages of learning? Apart from identifying which string to play on, and excluding for the moment students with either perfect pitch or digital tuner to match to, I would suggest it means almost entirely nothing. And it could even get in the way. 

A theory workbook may be a useful tool but it’s not going to engage their ear

Methods such as mnemonics could help students learn the notes contained within the stave, but might also leave them with a lifelong fear of ledger lines in either direction. Piano teachers are likely to start in C major which, if the violin teacher is starting on D, is going to bring the whole sorry business of why it’s F sharp and not F natural far too quickly to the fore. That might leave the student with the idea that keys are mired in confusions and difficulty, instead of the beautifully simple and logical structures they are. A theory workbook may be a useful tool but it doesn’t make any sound, so it won’t engage their ear. And while writing letters over the top can provide confidence, it’s no substitute for being able to decode the dots on the page. Bring finger numbers into it as well and you start cluttering up the page with awkward-sounding notes like ‘D2’. (Come back F sharp, all is forgiven.)

What is being able to read music anyway? If I can read one clef on one instrument without hearing it, do I have the ability to read music? Say I’m a violinist who also plays the piano and you ask me to play in bass clef, transposed up the octave. If I struggle, as most would, does that mean I can or can’t read the bass clef?

So, what is it that young string players really need to know? I’d suggest the following five points. Music reads from left to right. Being ‘on a line’ does not mean sitting on top of the line as common sense would dictate, but that the line is going through the middle of the note head. Notes move forwards through the seven letters as they go up the page (line-space-line-space-line) and backwards as they go down (even a five-year-old who is struggling with a 26-letter alphabet can usually remember the order of the first seven, though saying them backwards can prove a challenge). And finally, two fundamental islands of certainty: what the clef tells you, and the position on the stave of the four open strings. 

As far as the note names go, that’s it. The beautiful thing is that if you don’t immediately recognise a note, you can work it out yourself. Meanwhile I’d be building a strongly entrenched sense of the pentatonic, major and natural minor scales, or as much as is relevant. This would be matched to the ability to read shapes on the stave from a given starting point. I’m perfectly happy to trade ‘knowing the notes’ for the ability to hear them mentally. 

An exercise in reading is very different from an exercise in telling a story, or in our case playing an instrument. The mood is different, as are the diction and the phrasing. And while simply associating a place on the stave with a particular key on the instrument may be enough for a pianist (please don’t write in - my tongue, I assure you, is glued to the inner side of my face), it’s surely not enough for a string player.

What’s missing is the sound, the musical sense. For us, sightreading should be as close to sight-singing or sight-hearing as possible. Rather than simply equating a dot on the stave with a place on the fingerboard, I want my pupils to hear it. I want a bulb to light up in the brains, for the sound to come unbidden and the fingers to follow. Anything else is just typewriting. 

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to get in touch, please email us at thestrad@thestrad.com

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