I have recently taken on a new piano pupil, and I was surprised to see that in several passages of a piece which he had been learning he had written the names above all of the right hand notes. Most of these notes were on leger lines above the treble stave, and he had evidently found these difficult to read – well they are more difficult to read aren’t they?
However, what he had failed to notice was that the left hand was just an octave lower than the right throughout. Which means that he didn’t actually have to read the right hand notes at all. He could play it okay, but I just don’t think it had dawned on him that a little bit of knowledge (in this case simply ‘hands an octave apart’) was much more helpful than knowing the names of all those notes.
This is a classic case of being so concerned with reading the score that we forget to observe the glaringly obvious. When I pointed this out, he was equally bemused as to why he had written on his score!
I set him a new piece to learn: To a Wild Rose by MacDowell. He did a brilliant job of learning it in just a week, but to my surprise he had written in all the note names in the right hand, just for a couple of bars.
He was relying entirely on his reading skills to help him to recall these notes, and as already highlighted, leger lines aren’t his favourite! But there are other things which can help here:
- we noticed that the bottom line traces a chord of E7, and the top line is also a succession of rising thirds
- the first two bars have sixths between top and bottom notes in the right hand, and these extend to sevenths in the second two bars
- the physical shape of the right hand chords, and in particular the different combinations of black and white notes, enable us to remember what they look and feel like.
- a second finger on the B in the third bar gives a secure link between the alternating chords, again helping to forge a physical connection between the two chords
Taking a passage like this apart, and noting all of the musical, theoretical, physical and aural connections, will ensure that we really know it. And in many instances, our aural or memory skills might be better than our reading skills, in which case why rely solely on the reading skills? In short, we shouldn’t; we need to be prepared to use all of our musicianship skills, all of the time.