Labels v Shapes: A Real-Life Reading Story

I find teaching addictive. It’s problem-solving, anecdote-sharing, exploration, creation, drama, psychology, youth culture, and every now and again a little bit of inspiration.

But, for me, part of the addiction (I think) is the honesty you need, as a teacher, to bring to each lesson: admitting you get things wrong, not persisting with an approach that doesn’t connect with the student, not refusing to adapt your plans to real life, being prepared [and yes, I’m now specifically referring to instrumental and vocal teachers] to find new repertoire when a student (for no discernible reason) simply hates the fabulous music you’ve assigned.

And then there’s the very humbling moment when you realise that something has gone under your radar for far too long – a student is missing something you assumed they knew, and you’ve both been going on for weeks, months, terms, or even years without the omission being noticed.

That happened to me on Monday when my gorgeous young high school-age Grade 3/4 student brought a new piece (assigned two weeks ago) to his lesson with the names of the notes written into the score in one or two lines. We’re not talking the odd note here and there, but every single note for bars and bars.

I didn’t notice at first but as he played through the music and reached these bars, I was completely taken a-back, and before I could stop myself I blurted “Why have you done this?!” “Done what?” he said (he’s one of the communicative adolescents). “Written the names of EVERY SINGLE NOTE into your music!!!”

“Well, I wrote them in to help me learn them.”

Well, yes, I had supposed that that was his general plan. But what I had meant was this: what on earth persuaded you, at this comparatively late stage of your piano playing career, to begin inscribing the names of each individual note into a section of music that you find challenging?

“Let’s try it a completely different way,” I said. “Notice how all the notes are line notes? So, without playing anything what do you already know about how this will sound?”

“It’s just a chord.” “Right, but broken, and with this extra note,” I pointed to the note that made the 7th of the chord. ”

“So it’s just this,” my student said as he played that exact chord (G7 as it so happened). “Exactly!” I replied, “so we can write chord symbols above the whole bar, instead of individual note names above each single note, and, as long as you already know the chord, you should quickly be able to figure out what to play.”

We ran through the four chords that made up the first four bars of the section, first as a block, then playing through in the broken pattern used in that specific piece.

“Try it hands together,” I suggested, and next thing he played the line almost without blemish, almost at speed. I was as astonished at this development as I’d been at seeing all the little note names pencilled onto the page. “So, seeing as you can play this line so well, why on earth did you think it was a good idea to write the note names in?!”

“I can play it well now because you just showed me what the notes are,” was his reply. And he was right, in one sense, but in a literal sense I hadn’t shown him any of the notes at all; what I’d done was show him how to look at the notes as a pattern instead of a series of unconnected physical locations on the keyboard. But doing that had ‘shown’ my student the notes. All of them. And we went from stumbling and fumbling to close to effortless in the space of about 4 minutes.

This was an epiphany to me. Somehow, along the way, with this particular student, I had failed to effectively communicate, demonstrate or model that reading isn’t about labels (note names), it’s about shapes. He had truly had no idea how to attack this sudden mass of notes crowding the score and he used considerable initiative to set about mastering the section with what seemed to him the best technique: name all those notes so you just can’t play the wrong one.

But just as in life, where a label is an inadequate measure of a person, so in music labels don’t communicate much of value about a note. A note name is like a GPS coordinate: it tells you exactly where you are. What a note name doesn’t do is tell you anything about where you came from or where you are going next. For that you need to think in shapes.

Because the actions we perform at the piano require choreography (fingers in advantageous positions, wrist at an advantageous height, elbows at advantageous angles, shoulders advantageously engaged, and so forth) we need to read the shapes of notes in at least two simultaneous ways (and I’m leaving rhythmic pattern out of this discussion): firstly, as a pattern of harmonic shapes, secondly, as a pattern of physical movements. So in addition to reading G7 from the collation of quavers in that first bar my student needed to read the pattern of low to high in the particular way this broken chord pattern worked. He’d had no problem with this second, choreographic (and spatial), pattern-noticing/pattern-reading, but reading the notes as a harmonic shape had just not occurred to him.

A real-life reminder to me to teach reading shapes from all kinds of angles, as well as an important reminder to notice the clues that might have told me about this missing piece of the jigsaw two or three years ago.

Oh, and for just a moment there this was a hideous reminder of the bad old days, when writing note names over every note in the score was just what piano teachers wanted you to do….

9 thoughts on “Labels v Shapes: A Real-Life Reading Story

  1. So now I have to share my viola story. You know every high school has too many flute players? Well at my school the smartest and most foolhardy flautist was invited to take up viola instead. And by the way, the first orchestra rehearsal is in two weeks. New instrument. New clef. What to do? Foolhardy Flautist (FF) invented a system all of her own. Similar on the surface to what string players use (numbers for fingers), but FF’s numbers referred to semitone intervals (1/2, 1, 1-, 2, 2-…) and – the cool part – each of the four strings used a different colour. And yes, every single note was marked. Perhaps unnecessarily, but first rehearsal was in two weeks. Then, about two months later, the Technicolor-coded music was accidentally left at home. FF had to play from an unmarked part. Miracle: it was possible. Emboldened to sightread from unmarked music: also possible! Crutch abandoned, bar the marking of the occasional note or shift, just like normal string players. But FF never did master vibrato; that would have required a teacher.

    Later on FF discovered that her system was really very like the tablature systems that baroque lutenists used, minus the pink, turquoise, etc. She also learned along the way that one of the reasons classical guitarists often struggle with sightreading is that the whole concept of playing plucked strings is based on where you put your fingers (there usually being multiple options for any given pitch) rather than what the absolute notes are (which is the bias of staff notation). Explains why tablature is nothing to be ashamed of and in fact quite sensible for certain kinds of instruments.

  2. Great blog post. I focus on shapes and patterns often with most of my students. I usually ask them to verbalize what’s going on as they’re sight reading or studying a new piece for the first time. Instead of asking what notes they are, I ask, “what does it do? how does it move?” The answers are things like:

    Skipping up
    chord, chord, scale
    leap up a 5th, walk down, leap up a 6th, walk down

    I love it! You’re right about the note labels being as relevant as a GPS location, no context!

  3. Elissa, I wish you’d been my piano teacher all those decades ago. No one ever explained to me the notion of shapes, which makes so much sense!

    I gave up lessons when I was a kid, but I’ve since learned to touch-type accurately with my eyes closed. I imagine there’s a similar memory process at work there.

  4. No wonder he was near flawless when it finally kicked in — he had been running with ankle weights for all that time. When the clutch finally engaged, all that extra mental work he’d been doing was rendered unnecessary, and he shot forward.

    “Illiteracy,” of any kind, isn’t a mark of stupidity. A successful person who can’t quite read — words or music — correctly and is yet successful is often much harder working than someone who isn’t. Reading allows us to be lazy, in a way. It’s an enormous amount of work to NOT read. You can either do this one simple little thing, or compensate with these seven extremely difficult things that will get you to the same place.

  5. I’m using this place, irrelevantly, to say how much I liked your steely posting on Stephen Hough’s in which you challenged his view of what makes a musician a musician. As I former lecturer in philosophy, I thought I recognised the hallmarks of certain strands of analytical philosophy. “Wow, she’s really marshalling the case!” I thought, clicking on your name to find out more.

    Paul Brownsey, Glasgow, Scotland

    • Paul, what joy you’ve brought me this morning!! And certainly one of my great joys in life is marshalling cases… Sloppy thinking makes me quite cantankerous, and it’s just embarrassing when musicians engage in it. And in public!!!

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