Why shy away from dots and lines?

I, like probably every other classroom music educator, find myself regularly contemplating the importance of Western musical notation. Why bother teaching it? Is it of any use? Yes, I think it is. And yes, I should bother to teach it. Seeing posts about how pupils ‘forget’ the teaching they have received on notation and it felt like a ‘waste of time’ allocating teaching time to learning the notation when it is soon forgotten. This of course must be a problem with the pupils? I’m not inclined to think so. Good teaching changes pupils, and with successful consolidation why would they forget? Many music teachers have used Western notation for so long they are fluent; we need not blink to comprehend what he see. Perhaps we occasionally expect the same immediacy with our pupils. Can you remember learning to read music? I can’t. I can only remember being able to understand the dots and lines. If we don’t recall the process of learning notation ourselves, it can be tricky to teach it with real insight into the difficulties the system of dots and lines can present. The vast array of music theory books are not necessarily the most appropriate way of learning this language either.

I prefer to think of notation – in the early lessons of teaching it – as a short hand. A code to capture lots of material in the minimum amount of symbols. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that there are several concepts at play in even the smallest amount of musical material, and it is this often cacophony of concepts that can be overwhelming to the uninitiated music reader. I often start with graphic forms of notation and progress to Western notation as but one method of writing down music, always reminding pupils that this system of notation was developed to speed up learning of liturgical chant in the 15th century. It is not ‘music’. I often refer to Ikea furniture instructions as a comparison; my wardrobe needs to be built using the materials and the instructions. Possessing the instructions does not mean I have a wardrobe, I need to follow them to build it. A piano teaching course I did with EPTA many years ago reminded me of this point of the difference between ‘score’ and ‘music’. A Finnish piano teacher recounted a story of when she had not long been in the United Kingdom and a pupil turned up to his lesson saying “I have forgotten my music” and this confused her. She referred to the notation as the ‘score’ not the ‘music’.

I have been contemplating for some time how I can teach notation at a pace that means all can be engaged, yet means no one gets left behind. I think breaking the concepts down will be essential – recognising that teaching five lines, a clef, notes of varying lengths all in one go is perhaps not always the best approach. I can break this down and teach perhaps note lengths first, then introduce the concepts of pitch (perhaps even using fewer lines) and then why even bother with the clef for some time? Often piano instruction books particularly put a huge number of notational concepts in the first couple of pages. No wonder so many pupils struggle with notation! It would be like cramming all the grammar rules of a language on to two sides of A4 and expecting GCSE and A-level French classes to learn it from those two sides without music input from the teacher. I think subordinating the importance of notation to a couple of pages is a mistake, as is assuming that if a pupil does not ‘get it’ it must be their fault. We need to take responsibility as teachers to accept that we control the learning in the lesson – we cannot guarantee what they’ll do outside of the lesson – and we can work to ensure *something* is learned before they leave. Something could be anything. It need not be the complete understanding of all music theory concepts after one lesson…

I do hope that music teaching will not avoid the teaching of notation. I has value, internationally. Who knows what future work our pupils may encounter where an understanding of notation may be of use. Yes, they may not all grow up to be professional musicians but would it not be great to think that our teaching of notation stuck with them, allowing them to access unfamiliar music in their adulthood. So many adults regret giving up music lessons in their youth – well, I imagine there are many that do – and we can help to ensure even if our pupils give up they have some familiarity with these dots and lines.

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