Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Moment to Make a Daddy Proud

I've talked at great length on this blog about how I come from a musical family, and how I hope to pass on our family tradition of musicality to my children. Well, today I got some signs that I'm on the right track.

My eldest daughter has been working her way through the John Thompson piano series. She has finished this book and is now working on this one. And she's doing pretty well.

But she tends to learn the same way I do: by rote. She plays something over, and over, and over until it is completely in her muscle memory. It thus takes her a while to learn things (though I have noticed that it's not taking as long as it used to--her ability to learn is advancing, too, and I like that a lot).

And she hadn't been picking up much of the theory. So I decided to add a little something to her homeschooling schedule, and we picked up copies of these three books. Now, these books are intended to be used concurrently with the piano practice, but independently of it; you can choose to read the exercises at the piano to see how they sound, or you can sight-read them at the writing table--whatever works.

So we started off with the first of the three books, the Note Speller. We're not all that far into it yet--but the Pillowfight Fairy has taken to it like it's been missing all her life. So far she has learned how to draw a five-line staff, with bass and treble clef symbols; she has learned the time signatures of 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, and what they mean; she has learned about quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes, and how many beats each one gets (at least, when the time signature has a "4" on the bottom"); she's learned about bar lines, and how many beats have to exist between the bar lines; and she's started learning how to count out the time by looking at the notes.

On this last one, we put the book out in front of us on the table; and while we count "One, Two, Three, Four, One, Two, Three, Four" evenly, we use a pencil to point at whichever note we're supposed to be on at the moment. The Fairy has started to get pretty good at it, even when the rhythm is a more complicated one, like quarter-half-quarter in a 4/4 time measure.

But after finishing the exercise in the book, I felt we needed a little more practice before going on with the next page. So I got out the staff paper, and started doing a little one-line composition.

The Fairy watched me write it, with a level of interest that bordered on impatience--because she wanted to write some music too. So I finished my four measures of hastily-composed music, and had her draw in the bar lines (which requires her being able to count and add up the note values). Then I had her count it out, pointing at each note as we reached it. She did it well. So, I let her have the pencil--and she started writing a line of music, just like Daddy did.

Then I did another line, this time in 3/4, and then the Fairy wrote one of her own. Then I did one in 2/4, and she did another. By the time we were done, the page looked like this:
I daresay, my girl draws prettier treble clefs than I do.

And I started showing her how to put fingering numbers over the notes, and I had her do one line--the top one--herself.

So after we were done with each pair of lines, we'd go over to the piano, and I would play the line so she could hear what it sounded like. This part absolutely fascinated the Fairy! And I have to admit, when I was learning music theory in college, that was the part of the class I absolutely loved the most: the teacher would collect all our assignments, take them to the piano at the front of the class, announce who wrote each paper in turn, and play them all for us--so we could hear what our work, and those of our classmates, sounded like.Well, it seems the Fairy has gotten the bug too. After our six lines, she wanted to keep on writing, and I would have been more than happy to let her, had bedtime not been fast approaching.

Now, the Fairy doesn't know in advance what her music will sound like. At this point she's just putting semi-random notes on the page. But I started to give her a little advice, which (judging from the noodling she started doing at the piano immediately afterward) she immediately took to heart: If you want happy sounding music and don't want to use any black keys, start and end your music on "C" or "G". I didn't explain to her the reason, but of course this would put the song in either the key of C Major or G Mixolydian. And I told her that if she wanted to make sad-sounding music without using any of the black keys, you should start and end your music on "A" or "D" (again, corresponding to A Natural Minor and D Dorian). After I mentioned this, she started noodling around, trying to start and end her playing on C, G, A, and D, in turn.

So she doesn't understand in advance what the notes sound like together. But she is experimenting, and doing so enthusiastially--and that's what gets people eventually to understand this stuff. So again, I'm very proud of her.


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One more thing: her selection of notes may be random, but even random selections of notes occasionally do something. If you have a piano handy, take a look at the last line the Fairy wrote--the one in 2/4. She started and stopped it on the high A, and it just happens that the notes in the middle correspond pretty closely to the primary chords of A minor. Play that line out, if you will, perhaps accompanied by an A-E open fifth in the bass hand.

I did this at our piano after the kids all went to bed... and found myself noodling around for a good 20 minutes on that one line: exploring what kinds of counter-melodies would go with it, thinking what kinds of variations would work with it, transposing it into other modes (Major, Dorian, Mixolydian, etc), inverting it, imagining how it would be worked into a larger piece. In the hands of a J.S. Bach (or even a P.D.Q. Bach)--that melody would be turned into an entire cantata, or a symphony, or a tone poem. Those eight notes have some serious potential--and my only advice to her when she was writing them, was to try to get it to end on the same note as it started.

Anyway, I'm rather happy about all this tonight.