A Sad Little Story with a Happy Ending

I dedicate this article to all people who ever tried to learn music, but couldn't make it.

Jenny's mom wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her parents could never afford a piano and lessons. But Jenny's mom had one special song she had always dreamed of learning to play.

It never happened.

She grew up, established a successful career, got married and had Jenny.  Everything in her life fell quite nicely into place.  The only thing she ever truly regretted was that she had never learned how to play the piano.  “Oh, well, my daughter will do it!” she told herself.

Jenny loved music from the day she was born.   She would charm everyone who saw her as she tried to dance whenever she heard the family’s favorite song.   Her little legs couldn’t stop moving to the beat as she sang the words to the song. 

When Jenny turned six, Jenny's mom purchased a nice piano and started looking for a piano teacher.  In her mind she visualized her dream:  a beautiful evening, the piano sparkling as the beams of the setting sun danced across its gleaming surface – and her Jenny sitting at the piano, playing the family's favorite song.

Reality was painfully different.   Within two months, Jenny was beginning to dread her piano lessons.  Jenny's mom did her best to support her as and helped her through her practice sessions; they both learned music theory, worked on exercises, and drilled on notes and keys.

But Jenny was having little noticeable success in playing any songs.  She was nowhere near ready to learn the family’s beloved favorite.  There were a few songs in her method books, but they were extremely elementary.  One day Jenny's mom couldn't wait any longer and went to a music store to find sheet music for their song.  

“This song is really beautiful, but too hard for your child to play yet!” Jenny’s piano teacher exclaimed when she looked at the music.  “Just stick with her lessons, have her practice as much as she can, and in a year or two we will start working on your favorite song.” 

The teacher was absolutely right!  Jenny struggled even with a simple music staff.  She constantly confused one note with another and routinely missed keys here and there.  “If it took her 2 months to learn the simple staff, how much time will it take to get to advanced pieces?” Jenny's mom wondered wearily.  She grew tired of the constant fights with her daughter over practice sessions at home.  She had no idea of the stunning surprise that would occur a couple of months later at Jenny’s first piano recital.    

The beginning of the recital went pretty much as expected. Jenny was very nervous, but she didn't forget her piece when it was time for her to perform on stage.  Her mom felt very relieved.  All the hard work had finally paid off and it was time to be proud . . . at least momentarily.   Then Lillian, Jenny's friend, got on stage. She had signed up for piano lessons after finding out that Jenny was taking them.  “Hmm, I wonder, what piece from the method book Lillian will play? I need to talk to Lillian’s mom about how they handle practice,” Jenny's mom thought. Lillian looked at the piano keys intently and started her performance. IT WAS JENNY’S FAMILY’S FAVORITE SONG!!!  Neither Mom nor Jenny could believe their ears.  They were both crushed.

Jenny's mom couldn't sleep all night.  She replayed the recital in her head repeatedly. The most painful memory was to see the disappointment in Jenny's eyes.  The girl was truly hurt.  “Mom, I love music so much!  Why can't I play piano like Lillian?”   She heard her daughter’s anguished cry over and over as she tossed and turned, trying to sleep. 

“Really, why?  Why does Jenny struggle so hard to learn the piano?  It seems like she really appreciates music.  She loves to dance and sing.  Maybe she is not musically gifted, but she is doing great at school!  What is wrong and how can I fix it?” Jenny's mom asked herself over and over again through the long, sleepless hours.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with your daughter!” Jenny's teacher said the very next morning.  “Your daughter is a great student and her progress is very steady.  You have nothing to worry about!”

“But Lillian plays such advanced music already, and my Jenny . . .”

“You see, Lillian has inborn musical talent,” replied the teacher.  “She grasps music very quickly and has a great memory. She is a true prodigy. Unfortunately, one may not find such abilities very often.  That’s the bad news. The good news is that Jenny can play beautifully, too.  It will just take a bit more hard work.”

After the holidays, Jenny flatly rejected the idea of continuing piano lessons.  For some reason Jenny's mom accepted this decision with a sigh of relief.  They closed the lid on the piano, and family members forgot that it had ever existed. 

A couple of months later, Jenny turned seven.  Lillian came to her birthday party.  After all the fun and celebration concluded, Jenny's mom suddenly asked “Lillian, sweetie, would you play our family's favorite song?  Remember that piece you played at your recital a couple of months ago?”

“Oh, I forgot that music already!” the girl carelessly replied.

“I am so sorry to hear that,” Jenny's mom said in distress.  Suddenly a happy thought lit up her face.  “I completely forgot!  We have sheet music of the song!”  She opened the piano bench and placed the music on the piano.

Lillian narrowed her eyes at the notes.  Then she hopelessly looked around the room and began to fidget on the bench.   “I can't read this,” she finally confessed.

“But you learned this piece by reading, right?” Jenny's mom asked somewhat baffled.

“Of course!  We read this with my teacher sitting at my side and I also memorized a lot by looking at her hands,” Lillian whispered.

Later on, Jenny’s story took an absolutely astonishing turn.  Before I get to it, I have some important thoughts to share with you as a music educator. Many parents, like Jenny's mom, look for answers when they send their children to music lessons.  One of the most common is:

My child learned to read books very quickly. Why does he struggle to read music?

Many think that reading words and reading music notes are the same process. Is this true?

Children learn to read after they can speak fluently in the same language.  But when we play piano, we “speak” with our fingers. They are our “voice” and “vocal chords.”  Do we have an inborn skill to manage our 10 fingers the same way that we control our vocal cords?  Of course not!  For this reason, a beginning piano student of any age misses keys and struggles with finger work, just like a baby whose first efforts at speaking begin with babbling and vocalizing sounds.  Obviously, teaching someone to speak who can't say a single phrase is not the same as teaching a student who can't stop chattering.

Another point to ponder-- five and six year old readers are already capable of focusing their eyesight on small letters and then shifting this focus along a line of words.  They often use their finger or a ruler to mark their place on a page because they are afraid of losing track of the words.  But when playing piano, children see more than ten black tracks and eleven white ones that they must follow all at once!  Maintaining the eye’s focus over all these tracks is a skill required only in the arenas of piano playing and chess.  Unfortunately, piano beginners can't help themselves by pointing because their fingers are busy with the keys.

Reading the music is not the only obstacle a piano student must face!

Consider the spatial relationship of the keys on the piano to the music score.  Beginners have to divide their eyesight between the notations on the music (no simple feat in itself) and their hands on the keys. Otherwise, they won't hit the right target!  Poor things, they can't sneeze or even blow their noses, for fear of losing their position on the keys—and taking forever to find it again!

Another challenge is to learn the sound of a note “by ear.”  Any preschool child can already clearly tell the difference between O and U, and between U and Y. Unfortunately, this can usually not be said for the musical ear of the very same child. To determine the difference between C and C sharp is not every child's (or even adult’s) forte. The reason for this is plain and simple: for their entire lives, children have been too busy with learning to express their desires with words!  Speaking is a matter of survival for them, in some terms.  Put yourself in the child's shoes. You want to say, “I want candy” but you babble nonsense instead. What you do get? Perhaps, some steamed broccoli and carrots.  As for your ability to differentiate C from C sharp, it’s not so crucial compared to real life drama, don't you think?

To make a long story short, our kids are not naturally inclined to read music notation the same way they are ready to read books. They can't focus, their coordination skills are still developing, and their musical ear is in bad need of improvement.  No elementary school teacher would ever expect such “beginners with special needs” to read books. No way!

But piano teachers have no choice. They take such students with enthusiasm because they simply love music, and, well . . . there is no alternative.  But at least they always have a chance to '”win the lottery” and get some really smart-talking “toddler” (it is always exciting to have an element of unpredictability at your job).  These teachers do their best to teach your child to play and enjoy music with the tools and methods available.

Work that is worth millions, but pays peanuts.

Imagine this: you are an English teacher in a preschool.   A producer of a mega-show approaches you and makes an offer. He says: “If you take a one- or two-year-old toddler and teach this fella to recite Shakespeare's sonnet #55 in a couple of months to be filmed for our show, our company will reward you with 2 million dollars!'”

What would be your plan?

First of all, you would try to select the most talented toddler that you could find. You would try to find a toddler that already has learned how to speak coherently enough to be understood.  This special little toddler has to have listening and concentration skills and be willing to repeat everything you say, perhaps with the help of a few sweet bribes.

Second, you would start with drills; you would continue with drills and you would never give up on drills. You would drill the poem word-by-word, day-by-day and week-by-week repeating and repeating and repeating again, rewarding each success.  We teach parrots to speak the same way.  There is no other way to make a young toddler drool, excuse me, to recite Shakespeare for a silly television show no matter how much they pay!   Toddlers, you see, are not motivated by money. 

Believe it or not, this is exactly what a piano teacher has to deal with every day when teaching beginners of any age.  Sadly, piano teachers are not getting paid millions for the job.  (Obviously they are not motivated by money either!)  The teacher must find different tricks and be very creative in convincing your child (the one with limited coordination, who can't focus and can't recognize notes by ear properly, remember?) to play piano and enjoy doing it.  In addition, the piano teacher has to be an aid and an assistant at your helpless child's side, a babysitter and a nurse, too.  He or she knows and understands what your child is going through, feels your child's pain and tries to sweeten the pill with as much personal sugar and encouragement possible. Otherwise you and the child wouldn't be happy and motivated to continue lessons.

You think, that I am exaggerating? Ok. Today you are about to drop your child at piano lesson and about to vanish – to run some errands. Can you stop running and attend the class for a change?  Try to absorb what is going on during the piano hour. In a traditional piano lesson, you will see that most of the lesson will be spent by the teacher trying to help your child to see piano keys and music notes with theory explanations and pointing.  Your child will try his best to see them but will still be off track any way.

To help your child follow the track of music notes, the piano teacher will point at every note with a pen or pencil or with a cute little pointer (the most down-to-earth individuals also use a finger, too!)  They won't read the music piece in the same way they read stories.  Most likely they will deal with “one bar at a time” if they have just started a piece. They will work very hard and by “work” I mean “work”—labor with a lot of theory explanations and many, many drills. The student will eventually memorize the piece, because hard work always pays off.  Well, almost . . . sometimes!

Do you know the most common health problem among piano teachers? You may think that they would have hand or finger pain of some sort and you would be absolutely wrong!  Most piano teachers suffer from back pain.  They have back pain because they bend over your child for most of the lesson with a pointer in their hand.  In order to develop new skill, any beginner makes a great number of mistakes.   A piano teacher is rather like a punching bag for a beginners' music success . . . the student throws a lot of bad punches (or hits the wrong keys).   Being a professional with a sophisticated music ear, the piano teacher has to put up with a lot of false notes and rhythmical errors.  He will try his best to explain things to avoid this torture. But to know HOW to do it and to DO it are not the same thing.

Did you ever ask yourself: why do elementary schools kids take tests on reading, but in piano classes they mostly perform recitals?  The simple truth about why reading tests are not common in most piano classes is that the majority of piano students simply can't read a music score fluently!  They artistically recite instead.  Kids often learn to do things by copying adults.

Music notes are not letters! They are more likely knobs of a space ship.

Many people think that notes are like letters but in musical terms and that we have to treat them the same way. It is not so!

A music score is a map with coordinates.  If we don't see the entire picture, we miss the whole point of reading music. By pointing at each note, it is as if the piano teacher highlights it with a spotlight. But the rest remains in darkness.

We read books in one direction – from left to right or from right to left. By doing this, we learn to shift our eye focus, to follow with our pointer and to copy words in the same exact direction.  In a music score there is no consistent direction because music notes go up and down as they progress left to right, but when we try to play them on the piano we have to move our focus and hands right AND left at the same time.

Do you think this is easy? Take a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Now write down this sentence: “I love my child and I want music to be part of his life!”  But write it in a column, from top to bottom. Isn't it a little uncomfortable?  This is because it is completely contrary to the normal method of writing.
This might be called a “Mirror reflection skill” because people commonly learn how to do many things by looking at the world as if it were huge mirror.  Or as our young children might say, “Monkey see – monkey do.”

In English every letter is individual and unique. It has original graphics and an original “name.” This is why in school children learn one letter at a time because it is very important to differentiate one letter from another. We train our vision to see the difference.

But music notes are graphically presented as similar looking circles. They also have only 7 names despite the fact that there more sounds then letters of the alphabet. To teach each note at a time just does not make any sense!  Individual features of every note become apparent only in relationship to a group of others, much as we learn even and odd numbers, group books by age of readers, genre and alphabetical order. 

Generally speaking, written music is not literature – it is a spatial map.  Reading and playing a music score is more like piloting a space ship: you have to push the right button at the right time to get where you want to go.  By pushing a wrong button (or key) you can easily get lost in space and time. You have to be really good with your fingers and able to see exactly where you are located, where you are planning to be, and how to get there.  Bach once said that to play an organ is very simple: all you have to do is to push the right keys at the right time.  Every good pilot has to have excellent coordination, accurate eyes, and the ability to navigate; otherwise the passengers will need to abandon ship!

At first glance the solution to the problem is obvious:  the student has to learn theory, memorize notes and piano keys, and play different exercises to improve coordination. All these preparations will help enable him to sit in front of a sheet of music and begin to read a music score with confidence. Unfortunately in many cases, it just isn't happening. Why? Because . . .

Perception of music, coordination, vision and hearing have to team up from the start.

Otherwise they will quarrel. Let's try to imagine this “wonderful” process in a form of a little play with characters.

When Skills Quarrel - One Act Play

Perception:   Oh, these theory drills make me sick! I wish you'd play a nice music piece for me!

Coordination: Aren’t you happy to hear my exercises???

Perception: Your exercises are boring! I am tired of them! I want real music!

Vision: You are so selfish! Do you ever consider others? Who has to deal with reading? You? No! I have to be ALL EYES! But does anybody care?

Perception: Hooray! Finally they have given us a song! Of course it is not
“Moonlight Sonata" but at least something nice. “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”!  Very simple!

Coordination: Simple?! Are you kidding? I have to manage 10 fingers of both hands! How simple is THAT?
Perception: So what? You’ve played plenty of exercises with both hands!

Coordination: How could you dare to compare!  There I had to play the same pattern repeatedly -- that was simple!    This nonsense music twists and turns, and it’s not at all predictable like the exercises that you play!  This is rubbish! I don't work this way!

Perception: Well, why don't we get vision involved then? It ought to help you!

Coordination: Oh, really? What good will he do?  Vision got stuck already on the very first note and is still wondering where to find the other two.

Ears: Hey, how long do I have to wait for you? Stop dragging your feet. I am falling asleep here! You should be ashamed of yourselves!

Coordination: Oh, quit trying to be the boss! I have a heck of a lot of keys here – and you are doing nothing, just waiting. Don't you see that I have to rummage here in complete darkness? My hands are tensed from the fear of plunging into something wrong. Hey, Vision, have mercy, HELP!!!!

Vision: Oh, yeah? If I take my eye off of this note, there is no way I can find it again. Try without me, please, crawl down the keys, all right?

Ears: My goodness gracious! What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?  You are hurting me! You’re hitting all the wrong notes!

Coordination: Oh, I beg your pardon . . . There are so many keys and I am the only one working, darn it all . . .

Vision: Oh-oh . . . Where am I? Somebody help!

Coordination: Easy to say! I am barely moving myself . . .

Ears: Enough already! I’m out of here! I am not a detective who can find music in a few false notes played with the tempo of a dying turtle.

Perception: Guys, what is the problem? Why don't you use the right fingering?  Why don't you keep any rhythm? Are you sleeping? Didn't you hear what the teacher said in pure English: “speed up and play with expression!”

Coordination, Vision and Ear: Are you crazy?  Do it yourself!  Express as much as you want!

Perception: Is this a revolt? What am I supposed to do now? If you can't play such a simple song, I am just worthless.

Vision, Ear and Coordination: Yes, you are a blockhead indeed.  We are all a bunch of blockheads to be honest! There’s no chance we'll ever become proficient.  We’d better just give up.  Our teacher is right: not everyone can be a Mozart!

The End.

All this “drama” is happening in many music classes every day because the skills required to play the piano are getting developed separately at first. To prevent this from happening we have to remember a story about the bicycle.

The Rule of the Stationary Bicycle or
How We Have to Develop Complex Skills

Because you go to a gym and use a stationary bicycle for cardiac exercise, does it mean that you can ride a real bike?  Of course not!  Because riding a bicycle involves a complex set of skills.  You do not learn how to balance on a stationary bicycle, yet this is a missing but necessary link in training to ride a real one.

What would happen if you tried to ride a real bike after training on a stationary bike?  If you are an athletic type with a good sense of balance and coordination, it is less likely that you would be afraid of getting hurt if you fell off.  Someone less skilled, however, could be afraid of falling or fearful of even trying.

This is exactly what has happened for many centuries with piano learning because there is a missing but necessary link in music education, just as there is in the example of training for a race on a stationary bike. This link is the visual perception of score and keys.

Learning a complex set of skills requires that all the components be developed together from the very start to build a strong, unified network.  Losing any of the separate parts of the network, even for a short time, complicates the learning process for many students, except perhaps the most structured players.

Piano playing is about the relationship between the piano keys and musical notes – with plenty of looking and little actual seeing.

What is the difference between looking and seeing?  For a moment, imagine yourself for the first time looking at a sheet of piano music and knowing that it is in a language you do not know.  Or imagine yourself standing in someone else’s kitchen looking for the saltshaker among all the spices on the shelf, but you are unable to see what the hostess could find with closed eyes.  When a student of any age first stares at the piano keys and a music score, he/she is blind in the same way you would be looking for the salt among all the spices on the shelf.  When a person cannot see, he/she needs to develop the skill to see, not the textbook knowledge about how to see things. Most piano students are constrained by music education that keeps them blind.  Many well-known schools try to deal with the problem of music blindness differently, but all the approaches have the same foundation – reliance on muscle memory. This is exactly how we teach blind people.  How do the blind learn?  They learn by touch.  They also need assistance. 

Russian music educators deal with blindness by endlessly playing scales, finger exercises, and studies.  Creators of method books all over the world deal with blindness by offering “hand position” curriculum when hands and fingers are fastened to certain keys.  Some schools have declared that reading music is not necessary at the beginning, and that playing “by ear” is a more fruitful approach.  Some schools present beginners with sheets with finger numbers.  Some inventors create systems of training muscles by blindly chasing lit keys or moving colorful objects on a monitor screen.

Some inventors use interactive computer programs to try to teach the eyes the knowledge of what they need to see.

These methods are like the stationary bicycle! They all overlook one important component of the complex skill to play piano: visual/spatial integration. Therefore, if we want to make piano lessons more effective, our duty is to let people SEE the music notes and their relationship to the piano keys from the very first steps.

How to do it? It is not as hard as one might think!  It can be accomplished in the same way that we do it in day-to-day life.  When we deal with something that we have trouble seeing, we MARK it, underline it, or we add highlights and labels!  These marks help our eyes to see.   But it is not enough to use bright markers to color music notes. We have to do it in a logical and organized way, in a way that makes sense for our students!  When we classify similar looking things, we have to consider their outstanding features in order to add visual support for eyesight.  Look at shelves of spices in grocery stores! There are hundreds of the same looking jars, but they are organized in a way to help our eyes to get what we want: each jar has a name on it and a picture of the spice.  Then they are placed in alphabetical order!

Many kids are capable of learning letters before they even go to school because people created brightly marked alphabet letters for them. Remember how we teach children with cards or blocks?  Each letter is presented in large print with pictures and colors that help children to see the connection between the abstract letter, the picture and the phonetic pronunciation. For example, kids see a picture of an apple, say “apple” and figure out the letter A!

The same strategy can be used with music notes!  But when we choose, for example, 12 different colors for 12 different piano keys, we miss the whole point of visual support in learning.   Can these 12 colors add to the fact that 12 different keys have 12 different sounds?  Not really.  They simply add confusion.

Each music note has outstanding features. We have to determine all of them notes and make them obvious for the beginner's eyesight.

  1. If music notes are all either on spaces or on lines, why don't we color them in two contrasting colors for beginners’ eyes to instantly catch the difference? (Picture 1 – Map)
  2. If spaces and lines are the same tracks, why don't we present them with the same width on elementary level? Kids won't think that the white track is a “break between lines” any more!
  3. If treble and base clefs are mostly for different hands, the best way to present them is to give them different colors, too, but colors of let's say, a tree. It would help to explain gradual changes in pitch – from dark to light, from trunk to crown. (Picture 2 – Ode to Joy 4)
  4. If music notes go up and down and the corresponding keys go right and left, why don't we turn the Grand Staff sideways in an elementary presentation to line notes with keys and help beginners SEE a straight link between them right away?  (Picture 3 – Ode to Joy 2)
  5. If music notes have only seven names for all the keys and sounds, why don't we place a label of these names on each note and a key? This way a beginner will SEE the relationship easily, not struggle looking for information.  (Picture 4 – Ode to Joy 1, Picture 5 – Keyboard Alphabet )
  6. If it is so hard to shift eyesight along all lines and spaces, why don't we use computer interactivity to support focus at the elementary stage and then moderately develop its ability to shift?

Many teachers and many parents are afraid to give beginners too much support, because they think that they'll become dependant upon them. But street signs didn't ever spoil any driver, especially when an area is unfamiliar and the road is shrouded by fog. Don't you remember your own frustration that the signs were too small and blurry when you badly needed to see where to go?  But we never even look at the signs, once we know our way.

Today is a time to decide whether we give our students a better tool to see music notes and piano keys and learn effectively – or let them stay in darkness just because we learned by a different method.  For many former piano students, it is obvious what should be done!  But this is a very difficult decision to make for major music educational institutions, music publishers and music teachers. There is a lot of money already invested in method books and sheet music, all of which attempt to explain to eyes what they ought to see and try to present the traditional Grand Staff from the very start. The major question here is  whose best interests do we use to decide: the interest of people who have  personal/financial reasons to maintain the status quo or the interest of our kids?

By continuing music lessons in “blind mode,” millions of parents not only waste a lot of money on very slow and ineffective ways of teaching piano, they invest in ways of teaching music that could completely change their kids’ lives for the worse . . . by introducing frustration and failure at an early age.

Epilog. How Jenny eventually learned to play her favorite song

For almost a year Jenny didn't touch a piano key. When she walked by the instrument, she tried to look in a different direction. It was painful to think that she was a failure, and she tried to concentrate on happy thoughts instead. One day she was listening to a recording of the family’s favorite song, and suddenly she recognized the pitch of every single sound! She was hearing “do la fa re” in her head and got excited.  “I have to check whether I have the right notes by trying them on the keys!” Jenny decided as she went to the piano and opened the lid. Yes, it was all right! That very day Jenny spent several hours playing different recordings and then repeating the same music on the piano. Jenny had what people call “perfect pitch” – the ability to determine the pitch of every sound by ear. It is a gift, a little present from nature.

Jenny “got it”!  Music notation started to make sense to her. Her advanced ear instantly made a connection between each key and the note on the sheet music. 

One day Jenny's mom asked carefully, “Do you want to continue piano lessons?”  “I think, I do!” Jenny replied. She went to the same teacher and resumed working with a great deal of enthusiasm.

In several years, as she was graduating from school, she had her last recital.  Jenny's mom was sitting in the front row.  First Lillian came on stage. She played brilliantly!  “She is a gem!“ Jenny's mom whispered in Lillian's mom’s ear. Jenny was playing next. She played Rachmaninov, and it was an outstanding performance.  After Jenny finished the piece, she received a standing ovation.  Jenny turned her face to the crowd and said, “And now I want to give a little present to my mom!”  And she played their family's favorite song.  Compared to Rachmaninov, it was quite simple music, but Jenny's mom was moved, and tears came to her eyes.

“You know, Mom, I am going to Music University,” Jenny said that very day.  “I want to understand why at first I couldn't play the piano and now I can. Why it took a “miracle” to make me successful.  Maybe I can help others make it too.”  “I think you’ve made the right decision!“ Jenny's mom replied.

This is a true story.  It happened long ago with my mom and me. Yes, I suddenly “won the lottery,” when I realized that I had the natural ability to hear the perfect pitch of every music sound.  When the beautiful world of music eventually opened my heart, I became very afraid.  I was afraid that if were not for this “gift” I would have stayed musically blind forever.  You are never afraid to lose what you have never had in the first place until you have it and appreciate it very much.  Then you care big time!

Since then I have undertaken a long journey to search for the answers to why many other “Jennies” can't play the piano.  I have discovered some very important things that I now share with my readers.