Saturday, November 18, 2017

Little Eyes and Finger Numbers

Stock photo

If you teach with any of the popular method books, you've had the following experiences.

  • Student sits down at the piano and asks, "What position am I supposed to use?" before even looking at the notes on the page.
  • Student comes back after a week of supposed work on a piece and says, "I couldn't figure out where to put my fingers" even though you've been drilling with flashcards for weeks.
  • Student encounters a note that isn't under his hand, but plays the finger number above the note on the wrong key, even though it is wildly higher or lower than the written note.
  • Student, when asked to identify D above middle C, calls it a 2.


I'm willing to bet you're nodding your head.

I once had a student say, "I feel like I've been hypnotized by the finger numbers."



She was absolutely right. But, while I understood that she had been conditioned by "position playing" - you know, the directions in most popular method books to use C position, middle C position, G position, etc., I still didn't understand the root of the problem until recently. The problem lies with the eyes.

In my college pedagogy classes, while considering how to teach a piece of intermediate literature, my professor made an interesting comment. "Sometimes, you have to teach a student to choreograph his eyes." She was referring to situations like the need to look at the keys for a big leap and then to return the eyes to the page, or in the case of both hands simultaneously leaping, which hand to look at first. The idea of choreographing the eyes stuck with me, and I've used that concept with many students at various levels over the years, not to mention in my own practicing. We have to be intentional about where we look first and where we look second.

In the case of almost every student who starts learning to read music with pre-reading notation, the student looks at the finger number before they look at the position of the note on the page or staff.

I understand the benefits of starting with pre-reading notation, particularly for students younger than about age 7. The Fabers have a good page that defends the value of it. I heartily agree that there are benefits in not introducing staff reading right away. Pre-reading gives the student a chance to internalize simple note values, steady beat, reading left to right, etc. But, there are some cons to pre-reading, too, especially when it comes to directional reading. On paper, it seems that pre-reading would help with directional reading because the contour of the notes on the page is so obvious. But, practically, I'm not finding it to work well. My students tend not to feel a huge need to play in the right direction; their overriding internal need is to play the right note. The thing that insures they're playing the right note is the finger number. So, the eyes look at the finger number first, the direction of the notes on the page second. So, when they move to the staff, if there is a number above the note, they have been conditioned by weeks or even months of pre-reading notation to look at the number BEFORE they look at the note's position on the staff.

These kids are still sounding out words - looking at the individual words rather than conceptualizing the entire sentence. The same is true with reading notes. They can't hold the contour of the melody in their mind while trying to figure out what the next note is. And even though the next note may be positioned slightly higher on the page, in some of the books, it's not positioned enough higher to really perceive it. I've tried drawing staff lines or stair steps over them. The steps are awfully small. And it doesn't matter anyway, since the child's eye isn't seeing that. It's seeing the finger number.

When I was small, I learned a song at church called "Oh, Be Careful Little Eyes What You See." I can't get that song out of my head while writing this post!

We need to help children choreograph their eyes and to understand that there's an order of where to look first, like the order of operations in math. Did you learn to say "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember that in an algebraic equation, we do the operations in this order:  parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction?

So, how do we get children to see the note's position on the staff BEFORE the finger number? Well, for one thing, we reject finger-number note reading. I have one child, a kindergartner, using pre-reading notation right now, and she's my last. I think I'd rather devise my own primer level course of study if I can't find something I like better. Now, I don't necessarily mean I want to start right in on full-staff reading. I think I could easily spend a couple of months or more teaching note values and playing rhythm games, learning the white keys, and letting our playing at the piano consist of playful improv. before moving into modified staff reading and then five-finger pieces. I agree with the Fabers that there's a danger of sensory overload in introducing too many concepts too quickly.

Even while my kindergartner is in pre-reading notation, I've begun using modified staff reading with Jennifer Fink's sight-reading cards. These are great - and free! The students enjoy using them, and there are no finger numbers above the notes. These require the student to see up/down direction and steps/skips and condition them to use the lines and spaces to determine the next note. You can also choose to use a different starting finger, emphasizing that there's more than one way to play those notes.


When I introduce the full staff to this student, I plan to introduce one note at a time. My first piano book was the old Thompson gnome book. (I loved that book! Do you remember it?)


The illustrations on the page delighted me even at age 7, and I didn't mind playing a piece that consisted entirely of middle C. I could focus on the rhythm. This is another way to avoid the sensory overload of too much to learn at once.

Thompson still publishes this book, just with updated illustrations of monsters instead of gnomes. Since I haven't seen it in a million years, I've ordered it to consider whether I might use it as transitional approach to the staff. I don't intend to continue with the Thompson series as I believe that piano pedagogy has changed in many advantageous ways since these books were published, but as a first step in staff reading, I think the monster book may be valuable.

I'm also interested in Irina Gorin's Tales Of A Musical Journey as a beginning method. While I have not seen the books in person, the description indicates that notes on the staff are introduced one at a time, and the testimonies contain many mentions that this method helps to combat "position fingering."

When my kindergartner does transition to the staff, I plan to teach several pieces using white-out to obliterate any and all finger numbers printed on the page. We will discover together which finger makes the most sense to use to accommodate steps and skips and the range of notes she needs to cover. I want her to take ownership of the fingering rather than having it own her. The most important thing is that we keep the horse ahead of the cart - the notes and their position on the staff determine the fingering, never the other way around. I hope that by making a drastic change and taking away all of the numbers, it will short circuit the conditioning she's already experiencing to look at the number first.

I am interested to hear what other readers do to combat finger number note reading. Have you found an approach that works for you?

4 comments:

Heidi said...

I like using the sight reading cards from pianimation and also send home a similar set " Notey Noteheads" that are free on Susan Paradis's site. I also like the approach in My First Piano Adventures books of introducing the notes one at a time but with songs that switch up the fingering so they don't get stuck in position playing. Making the directional reading association with both auditory and visual modes is key. I made a Piano Pattern Bingo game that reinforces seeing/hearing directional patterns in music even before students may be playing the more difficult skills like 1octave arpeggios. They practice listening to the direction of the music and match it to patterns on the staff. http://heidispianonotes.blogspot.com/2015/08/technique-pattern-bingo.html .

IvanDavNewyork said...

A great Piano lesson book should also include how to tune your instrument or rather how to find a good tuner for your instrument.
Regards:
Piano | Ivan Davis New York | Pianist

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Michelle H said...

Intervals. I teach these these within 1-5 weeks of starting lessons, depending on the student, and when they start getting slightly comfortable with intervals but struggle finding where to start a piece of music, we focus on notes again, and repeat (Musictheory.net flashcards are invaluable). We also add sight reading that doesn't have finger numbers--initially in a five-finger position (Michael Kravchuck has an awesome PDF of these athttp://michaelkravchuk.com/sight-reading-354-reading-exercises-in-c-position-by-michael-kravchuk/).
Great insight regarding eye choreography.