I just inherited a handful of piano students from my Predecessor. During my first lesson with each of these students, two things became immediately clear: Predecessor had never taught them to count, and none of them could read music. Literally. (And no, they were not taught Suzuki.) They are spread across various levels, from very beginner to (what should be) intermediate – playing in (for instance) Alfred Level 3 but completely incompetent in every facet of playing: counting, correct notes, correct rhythms, correct fingering, dynamics, etc.
I have been giving these kids remedial drilling on note reading. Flashcards like crazy. Lightning round: name the note and play it, as quickly as possible. Every lesson. All of them have at least half the note names written in on each piece – Predecessor’s work. All notes are written in for every harmonic interval and chord. All F#s highlighted purple. All of them. Again, Predecessor’s work. The older ones, I have been giving them a crash course in interval identification, triad building, basic harmonic structures (I, IV, V), and inversions. Because they can’t play a I-V-I progression without hitting wrong notes in every single chord.
I have been teaching all of them how to count. What notes are called (quarter, half, etc) and how many beats they get. How to count the beats. How to label the beats, and then count/tap in rhythm. Explaining time signatures. How to construct a measure. And I am trying to do all this without letting them know that they are severely deficient in literally every way, and their last teacher, Predecessor, was completely incompetent and instead of finding ways to teach them found more involved ways to cheat.
It’s been a challenge so far, but an interesting one, trying to find the most quick and efficient way to build a foundation under them without starting from the beginning, especially for the teenagers. And to their credit, they are very enthusiastic in getting up to speed, because they realize this stuff makes learning pieces much easier, and they start to see the puzzle pieces click.
But for some reason tonight got to me. I was teaching one of my youngest inherited students. He can’t be more than 6 years old. He is just starting to learn to read music, or should be (Bass F, Middle C, Treble G: the outer notes of “middle C position,” then, filling in the notes of the RH, then the LH). Predecessor took him as far as all the notes in the right hand plus that F in the left. Not only did she write in every single note, she color coded them. Every single one. Every middle C was colored over yellow. Every F – both hands – was purple. D was green. Etc.
I’ve been flashcard drilling him. Identifying the notes and playing the corresponding key, which is proving more difficult for him than it should be. He has no concept of notes on the staff corresponding to specific keys. He sees an F (either one) and it could be any of three Fs on the keyboard, despite having him point out middle C first (the only note he can reliably find). It is slow progress. But we have to go back to the lesson books at some point. So, making an effort to erase the practically indelible colored pencil marks, I say to him:
Me: Are you using these colors to read?
Me: (indicating it as a challenge) Well, I’m going to erase them.
Me: You’re learning to read words, right? Do you color code every letter?
Him: No, I just learn them!
Me: Right! These are just helping you cheat, so we’re going to get you to not need to cheat anymore!
Him: But we can’t go on to the next song yet.
Me: Why not?
Him: Because I don’t know what blue is.
Blue. Sitting on top of the bass staff was B, colored blue. I told him it was a B. Had him locate it on the piano – the note just below Middle C. Propped that flashcard next to Middle C’s so he could (hopefully) see the spatial relation of how close they are. Had him find it again. Mixed that flashcard in with his two other bass clef flash cards: F and Middle C. Quizzed him. And every time he saw that B, he called it “blue.”