Noah has been working hard to fill his note-naming gaps. He’s got some history on this one. Way back in 2004/5 when he was taking piano he was really struggling to name the notes on the grand staff. To the point that anxiety and a sense of failure on this count contributed directly to his decision to quit piano. It probably didn’t help that he was learning three clefs simultaneously — treble and bass for piano, and alto for viola. I was sure that he was just taking his own sweet time learning to read music and that it would eventually come. His viola teacher was happy to keep teaching his new repertoire by ear; his piano teacher was not. So piano fell by the wayside.

He did learn to sight-read just fine. Over the next year or two his viola reading skills came along nicely. The first year he was in the community orchestra he struggled to learn his parts. By the second year he wasn’t really needing any help. He’s been the section leader now for two years now and is a strong player who learns his parts quickly and is a capable leader. In quartet he does beautifully. Summit Strings is the same. The first rehearsal he sometimes muddles around a bit, like everyone, and by the second rehearsal, with almost no work at home, he’s got it nailed. He functions in ensembles as if he’s a very strong sight reader, and that’s true even if he’s alone on his part.

But then this year he’s begun learning more complex viola repertoire without any aural context. No recordings, no ensemble rehearsals. And he’s been having lots of trouble. He can get the gist of a piece from the written page, but without some sort of harmonic and rhythmic context that he can hear, he can’t sort out the details. About three months ago, as I helped him along with some of his repertoire learning, I suddenly discovered that he cannot name the notes. He sees a note on the page, and while he may know what it should sound like and how he would produce that sound on the instrument, he still does not know the letter-name associated with it.

It turns out that this is a problem. You cannot communicate easily about music without this nomenclature. And some aspects of music theory, and hence the details of music reading, really require some sort of note-naming system. Note-naming is helpful and necessary for certain musical tasks, especially at advanced levels. It’s become an issue this year as he’s been working with a new teacher at a new level.

The graphic above illustrates the four related aspects of pitch that a viola player, or any instrumentalist, needs to put together. Clockwise from top left:

the location of the note on the musical staff
the letter name associated with the note
the location of the note on the instrument
the sound of the note

What has become clear is that Noah connects three of those aspects just fine, but none of those three are properly connected to the note-name. When shown a note on the staff he can hum it and he can find it on his viola. When he hears a note he can tell you how it’s played on the viola and where it would lie on the staff. But the note-name? Nope. Not most of the time.

Only six or eight note names have much meaning for Noah — the names of his open strings and of three or four other landmark notes. And so when he needs to name a note he relies on an inefficient and intellectually taxing work-around. He figures out the interval between the unknown note and one of his “landmark notes” by mentally imagining himself fingering the notes on his viola or by imagining the sound of the unknown note and the landmark note and comparing them. He knows the name of the landmark, so he then runs through the alphabet as he counts his way back up or down the interval to the unknown note. What a lot of steps! No wonder he used to get all anxious and teary when asked to do speedy note-naming quizzes at his piano lessons, poor boy!

So anyway now that we’ve honed in on exactly where the difficulty is, we’re more than half way to solving it because we can now target the precise connections he needs. He has four or five daily exercises we’ve devised for strengthening the connection between both the written and the played aspects of pitch and the note names. He’s making good progress even though the work is difficult for him. It’s as though he’s a boy who has been taking the long roundabout route to his friend’s house for years, not knowing there was a direct short-cut through the woods, so that he’s created a well-worn roundabout path that seems comfortably familiar and obvious. It’s hard to veer off into the undergrowth of the woods even though we know that’s how he ought to be going. So now he’s doing the hard work of trail-building in the woods. It isn’t a whole heap of fun, but he’s doing it anyway — because he wants the ease and efficiency it promises, and because he trusts his teacher when she tells him he needs this pathway.

Note naming

2 thoughts on “Note naming

  • March 17, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Amazing that the note name is actually important. That was the first bit of the puzzle that I had, before the place on my instrument, and I found it to be “going the long way” to use the note name. Often I had the note on the staff, the note name and the sound and just couldn’t find the place on my instrument – funnily the “missing note” was often an open string. But then again, when I am playing by ear with just the sound in mind, it is the open strings I “lose” as well.

  • March 17, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    This is interesting to me as I watch my boys learn to read regular print. They both struggle in different ways. They are each missing one of the pieces as well, and it’s a different piece for each. Perhaps I will have to be more systematic in figuring out the exact piece so I can offer a bit more support for them. Then again – if I just leave them alone they’ll likely figure it out for themselves. This is what I find hard – deciding what to do; wait for their brains to develop more, or get in there and help. I change my mind about this daily.

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