April 5, 2011

Every Girl (and) Boy Do Just Fine

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Most of us of a certain age have heard that “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”  It was de rigueur for learning music notes on the lines of the treble staff.  I must rant about the inherent sexism but before I do, I want to launch the news that piano isn’t taught that way anymore.

When I was a child in music lessons, names of the notes were drilled into me.  When I played, I translated note to letter name to piano key until, as with any language, I began thinking in music.

I taught note names exclusively for years until intervals began showing up in the method books.  With interval reading you learned to judge the distance from one note to the next or in the case of chords, you read shapes rather than individual notes. Eventually, of course, you learn the names of the notes as well.  Sight reading skills grow quickly when one uses both techniques.

Over the years I have encountered parents who are suspicious of interval reading because like me, they had note names drilled into them.  The suspicion seems to be that interval reading is designed to teach students to understand music without actually teaching them to play.

“She doesn’t know the names of her notes!” a mother threw the accusation at me as though she was exposing a fraud.

“Not all of them,” I said.  “Not yet.”

“What is she doing at her lessons?”

“Well, she’s having the experience she’s having,” I said.  “Would you like to sit in on a lesson?”

I didn’t want her there—talk about having an unbeliever at the séance–but she was signing my checks.  Turns out she didn’t want to be there anyway and her daughter wanted her there the least of all.

Some students need to know where every note is, what it’s called, and what it’s doing.  These are our future accountants.  Other personalities would sooner bang their heads on the music rack –and some do—than do note drills. Still others don’t care about anything except sound;  they can get into quite difficult music before it’s clear they don’t know how to read a note.  I have students whose hands are constantly caressing the keys: they rely to a great extent on feeling the relation of the black keys to the white keys.

So it’s good there is more than one way to go about learning something.

I overheard a couple of old school music teachers cluck their tongues at a young teacher who let a student play a piece in the key of D, leaving out the sharps on the first pass through.  The second time through, the student sharped all the F’s and C’s; the third time through, she counted and finally worked out the fingering.  The older teachers had the same look my mother would get whenever she suspected that somewhere in the world some child might be learning to read without using phonics.

Teachers cannot control what or how a student learns.  I liked the young teacher’s idea because it allowed her student to make choices about her learning.  When you learn a new piece of music, everything comes at you at once: notes, counts, fingering, tempo.  It interests me to watch a student choose the most manageable way to begin.

I really want to get to my rant about sexism in piano lessons.  Why was it only the boys who did fine?  I mean, it’s not true, for one thing.  Even worse than “Every Good Boy Does Fine” was the variation that filtered into my piano lessons when I was ten: “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.”   How is that fair?

When I started teaching I changed the mnemonic to “Every Girl and Boy Deserve Fudge.”  But one year I ran a contest to see if my students could come up with something better although there isn’t much that’s better than fudge.  The winner was Jeremy Caci who came up with “Elvis Goes Boogieing Down Fremont.”

Adult students are dismayed when they learn that the bass clef has a completely different mnemonic.  The line notes — G-B-D-F-A –are traditionally taught with some uninspired saying like “Great Big Dogs Fight Animals” (or Ants.)   This is what I call aclever.

But my friend Chris, the unclassifiable except that she is a good cook, recently came up with a splendid mnemonic for the bass clef line notes:  “Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart.”

So far we have only been talking about line notes.  The space notes in the bass clef still insist that “All Cows Eat Grass.”  The space notes in the treble clef still just spell F-A-C-E, which every boy and girl deserves to stuff fudge into.



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