34. MUSIC VISION: Do We Need “Etudes” for Our Eyes?
It is believed that in order for a person to sit and play from sheet music, all he needs is an elementary knowledge of theory and an understanding of the notes’ positions on the music staff, as well as a relatively developed coordination. However, judging from the current success rates in traditional music lessons, it is obvious that this isn’t nearly adequate.
Naturally, the most important part of the work done in music reading is performed by the vision. Yet because of some sort of misunderstanding, traditional lessons rarely use visual exercises that develop the perception of sheet music! As a result of this, the ability to “catch” the entire page in one glance, momentarily separate the important from the supplementary, and to read it on the fly is considered to be an art on the verge of the impossible. Only the most talented musicians are believed to have the skills necessary to obtain this “holy grail” of musicianship.
In reality, the “secrets” of lightning-quick sight-reading aren’t at all difficult to pass on to children at the earliest age. In fact, there is only one thing preventing the achievement of this: stubborn educational habits and prejudices. All that the educator needs to do is to look at the music staff with the eyes of a person that’s never seen it before. I’ve been lucky enough to manage this. Let’s admit it – our “familiar and logical” notes are completely nonsensical, and even hostile to the beginner! When I first set eyes on a new page of sheet music, I saw a minefield where any false step would set off a disaster.
Later, when I completed my education, I tried to find ways to adapt the Grand Staff to make it more comprehensible to a beginner. I had to think up some proper exercises that would develop visual skills, and eventually created flashcards, computer games, and posters capable of such a task. With their help, the eyes of my students were trained to separate the different elements of music notation.
Here are the main obstacles, or potentially undeveloped skills, that hinder the fluent reading of notes.
- An inability to distinguish notes that are one step apart from notes that skip several steps. The student can’t quickly tell a note that is on a line from a note that is between lines.
- An inability to quickly determine which line or space is which. I myself often confused the 2nd and 3rd lines and spaces with the 3rd and 4th as a child. This was a consequence of the fact that there are over 7 lines and spaces to keep up with on the Treble Clef alone, and the visual perception gets lost in its “visual jungle.”
- Confusion between the “left-right” movement on the piano (the keys) and the “up-down” movement of the notes (the Grand Staff). When the melody goes “up” in pitch, one needs to move to the right on the keys, and when it goes “down,” he needs to go to the left. While the coordination of right-up and left-down hasn’t been properly formed, competent reading of sheet music is almost impossible. The child exerts a large amount of concentration just to “rotate” the notes.
- An inability to read both the treble and bass clefs at the same time. If this skill hasn’t been formed, expecting to play with both hands would be the same as trying to eat from an empty plate.
- A lack of coordination between the hands while reading the two clefs simultaneously. If the hands haven’t properly been “worked out,” they just get in the way of reading! Now the plate is full, but there aren’t any utensils to use.
- An undeveloped “music eye” that can accurately estimate the distances between notes (and their according keys). In other words, the inability to count and play the jumps in melodies and complex chords.
In order to help my little students work out these difficulties, I used supplementary graphics, and most importantly, a colorful and simplified transformation of the grand staff. At first, I used flashcards and written exercises, and later, computer games. Finally, with the help of interactive (reactive, answering) animation, we were able to develop the vision of our students quickly and without difficulty.
The program was published, and again I ran into the confusion of my colleagues. My visual “aids” were called “another charlatanic, gimmicky attempt to color the notes and keys.” I understand. Colors and graphics are often used as aids in music lessons, but none of them have achieved much success or popularity. Simply coloring the keys and notes, isn’t enough; it’s just a visual effect. One needs to understand the mechanism of the visual perception and use graphics as a guide, not as a “fifth wheel.”