When children first learn to read, they work out one word at a time, and it can be very obvious to the adult that, although they might eventually reach the bottom of the page, they haven’t actually taken in the meaning of the words which they have read. Reading each word has demanded their entire focus, and has not been understood in context. As they become more familiar with the way that language works, they become increasingly fluent, and eventually we hope that they will read with understanding, and with a rise and fall in the intonation of the voice which further enhances the meaning not just of the words, but of whole phrases and paragraphs.
My pupils are very familiar with the phrase ‘know it, don’t read it.’ In other words, if they are having to work out each note afresh every time they encounter it, how well do they really know the music? There are two distinct levels here: we might be able to play a piece faultlessly from beginning to end, and therefore know the music, in as much as we know what all the notes are, what order they come in, the correct rhythm etc. But in the same way as the child in the illustration above can read the words but not understand them, I would question the merits of teaching a student to play a piece without also helping them to understand the wider context in which the notes are found.
The simplest way to test whether our pupil really knows the music, of course, is to take the dots away!
I find that the first response is usually ‘I can’t do that!’ However, a few choice questions from the teacher might provoke a different response: ‘Can you remember what key the piece is in?’ What note does it start on?’ ‘Can you sing back the first part of the tune?’ Questions like these can help the pupil to realise that actually they can remember some of the music, but much more significantly, they might also find that a little theory helps them recall it. If the piece is in F major, it begins to make sense that the first bass note is F and the melody starts on A, since both fit in the chord of F major.
This is one tiny example – but I firmly believe that children can be stretched, and that they can and indeed enjoy being stretched – it’s exciting and enabling. Especially if they believe that their teacher believes that they can do it. And believe me, they can!
Taking the music away gives us all sorts of excuses to find endless ways of remembering the music; children are endlessly resourceful and they are also amazingly inventive, but whatever way they might come up with, they are now investigating the music in a new way. Before, all they had to do was decypher the notation, nothing more – a potentially daunting exercise but little more than that. Now, they have to enquire, to search their mind for connections between the notes in order to remember them. And it is this which will open their eyes and ears to the way in which the music is put together; keys and chords suddenly become useful guides, rhythms need to be internalised, the ear might remember something which the fingers did not. Pianists can look at the keyboard and see patterns there too.
This is how I love to teach music theory and aural. Not at a desk with a pencil and paper (although I do love that too!) but at the same time as learning the music. The music, not just the notes.
Don’t play the notes… Play the meaning of the notes