The Big Picture


The other day, while teaching one of my beginner students, it hit me: the reason beginners sometimes feel frustrated with piano study is that they are immersed for awhile in the micro details of music, rather than the macro. What I mean is, rarely at the outset do they see and experience the big picture of music.

I was explaining quarter notes at this particular lesson. “This black dot with a stem is a quarter note. It gets one count.” And then we clap or tap or march quarter notes, some fast, some slow. But quarter notes are meaningless without context. So then I’ll tap quarter notes while the student taps half notes or whole notes or eighth notes; then I’ll have him tap quarter notes while I tap the other kinds of notes. Still, this doesn’t make sense to many young children. I can just hear them thinking….”What….??”

This is what I find frustrating about traditional method books. The details of music are presented, without context, until enough details are strung together to make a song (and the song is usually bland, using just a few pitches). I’ll look at a page in the method book and it’s explaining a quarter note. But, isn’t it a bit misleading to say, “A quarter note gets one count”? Because, in 6/8 time or other compound meter, a quarter note gets 2 counts. Or in 3/2 time, a quarter note would get 1/2 of a count. And to a child, what is a count? What is a beat? What does ‘rhythm’ mean? What is meter? When I say, “In 4/4 time, a quarter note gets 1 count,” what exactly do I mean?

I realized, during this lesson, that I can’t take for granted that this child knows what these terms mean. And even to an adult student….how do you explain beat or meter? And then when eighth notes are introduced (usually not until level 2 in many methods, which means the child has to get through both the primer level and level 1 before they even see an eighth note or rest) they almost automatically think: “Eighth notes are fast,” rather than knowing about the subdivision of beats—about microbeats and macrobeats: a half-note is to a whole note as a quarter note is to a half-note as an eighth note is to a quarter note…etc.

And then to compare eighth, quarter, half, and whole notes to fractions when children in the lower grades may not have studied fractions yet……

Wouldn’t it be better for beginners to experience the ‘macro’ first rather than the ‘micro’? And experience it without over-explaining terms? Or explaining them at all?

How would a student experience macro first? Rote learning a song is one example, where a teacher or friend shows them how to play a tune without music notation. Or, playing a song a student has already memorized and mastered. Improvisation and jamming are other macro experiences, as well as listening to music through headphones, or going to a concert. In other words, hearing and playing music in a fluid manner for at least a few minutes to really get inside the experience without getting hung up on details.

This reminds me of algebra class in high school. I really hated algebra class, and couldn’t see how x + y = z would affect my daily life, or contribute to my future. I wanted to grow up to be some kind of creative-type–not an engineer or mathematician. Then when I was in college and dating my husband-to-be, he explained to me that there is an equation for everything, from garbage cans to the arc of a playground swing. He helped me to see that algebra was the language of the universe.

Well, that totally blew my mind. No one had ever explained mathematics in such a romantic way before. Had my algebra teachers in high school showed me the macro while explaining the micro—I think I would have enjoyed math class much more, and tried harder. I might even have gone on to study science in college.

So when we, the music teachers, explain details without showing students the big picture, we are doing them a disservice. They need to get the macro of music right away–in the first lesson–without getting bogged down by “This is a quarter note, or 3/4 time, or pianissimo.”

Can we somehow show them that music, like mathematics, is the language of the universe?

1 thought on “The Big Picture

  1. Reblogged this on Melody Music Studios and commented:
    Siobhann shares her perspective of how students navigate learning piano. Wonderful post!

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