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"Every Good Boy Does Fine" is not fine!

Today's blog post is about a little pedagogy niggle of mine - or maybe it's more serious than just a niggle.

A quick apology

But before we get to the main event, I must say that I have been absent from the blog, because we had internet connection "adventures" in August and September and then again this last weekend. We were offline for 16 days. It took 8 engineer appointments (7 of them cancelled by our provider for one reason or another) and 20+ phone calls to sort out the situation. Of course this all happened as we were going into a new term, so the moment we were reconnected, I had an avalanche of preparations to do urgently to get the new term on the road. Then we had a minor glitch again over the weekend. But I think we are now connected and can expect smoother sailling.

Mnemonics are Mnot Good!

Back to the matter at hand - sight reading. Or even just learning to read music well. One of the teaching approaches that gets in the way of fluid reading skills is teaching the notes of the staff with mnemonics. I can remember my mother (who was my very first teacher) teaching me the lines of the treble and bass staff:

Treble Lines (going up) >>> Every Good Boy Does Fine

Treble Spaces (going up) >> FACE in the space

Bass Lines (going up) >>> Good Boys Do Fine Always

Bass Spaces (going up) >> All Cows Eat Grass

I’ve heard other such sentences –

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (for the treble staff);

Elephants Get Big Dirty Feet;

Every Grandma Bakes Delicious Fudge Always - This one is actually pretty good, because it extends up to the ledger line above the treble staff. And there is a corresponding sentence for the bass staff that uses the same words but starting on the ledger line below the bass staff:

The problem with relying on mnemonics to teach reading on the staff is that it treats note identification as an isolated event, and that means stultified reading. It turns out that fluid music reading doesn't have much to do with naming notes on the staff. That sounds counter-intuitive, but I can guarantee you that when I am reading through scores, I don't think in terms of note names. I think in terms of relationships and musical structures, which suggests a different priority than simply naming notes.

Clefs are actually fancy letters

Of course knowing the notes on the staff is important, but it makes so much more sense to learn to understand and recognise the function of the clefs rather than remembering a random sentence that has no musical meaning. The clefs are all derived from old-fashioned letter shapes that denote a particular line as that musical letter. For example, the treble clef is derived from a rather fancy calligraphy G that wraps around the G line, thus I sometimes refer to treble clef as the G clef.

The G clef G is always the G above middle C.

Likewise, the bass clef is derived from a calligraphy F that sits on the F line, and so the bass clef is sometimes called the F clef.

F clef F is always the F below middle C.

In terms of piano music, these three landmarks – middle C, treble G and bass F – can get you far if you combine them with patterning. Encouraging a student to read contours of a musical line makes reading music rather simple. If the student understands the idea of “connect the dots”, they can easily start to read by pattern.

Paired with interval identification and the resulting differentiation between scalar passages and chordal passages, and you’re on to a winner.

Not only does this simplify matters, preventing the tedious counting up lines using a musically irrelevant sentence, it also produces a more connected approach to reading music. Reading patterns and understanding how they relate to the clef is more musical than reciting a made up sentence. Pairing this approach with sight singing and keyboard harmony exercises leads to thinking in a key and reading musical architecture – it leads to real connection and understanding of music, as opposed to isolating single notes all along the way.

Middle C Methodologies

I think we are all subjected to a middle C approach at some point in our early musical education. Middle C is easy to spot on the page and easy to find on the piano. But there are some methodologies that then proceed to teach notes in a piecemeal sort of way, similar to staff mnemonics. My mother gave me John Thompson’s piano method, and while it is a classic (and actually has some rather attractive student pieces), this was a disaster for my reading skills.

Any approach that teaches note identification in a separated way – unconnected from the idea of patterning and of reading within the context of the tonal system gets a big thumbs down from me.

My own reading started to improve when I took pedagogy classes and learned about other approaches to reading music. In particular, combining a “landmark” approach to identifying easy-to-read notes (middle C, treble G and bass F) with interval recognition, patterning and sight singing in major and minor keys turned everything around for me. And as a young piano teacher, I was almost missionary in teaching this approach to my own students, with great results.

Let's ditch the mnemonics and the middle C methods

So can I make a plea that we all banish a reliance on mnemonics to teach notes on the staff as well as teaching music reading one note at a time. Reading music is far easier and much more fun than that! :-)

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