In January 2019, Alfred Publishing released PLAY & READ – a 60-page program I designed specifically to introduce Suzuki Piano students to the process of reading music. PLAY & READ builds on Suzuki Piano students’ experience of playing their Volume 1 repertoire. Each of the six lessons in PLAY & READ is based on a Volume 1 selection. What’s remarkable about PLAY & READ is that students learn to “read by ear”. That means students know what each bar sounds like before they play it and they read in groups of notes rather than one note at a time, similar to the way reading words relies on reading groups of letters rather than one letter at a time. Students are encouraged to sing, say, and write throughout PLAY & READ as a way of getting them holistically involved in the reading process. In the months since its publication, PLAY & READ has received glowing support from Suzuki Piano teachers around the world.
One of the questions that comes up fairly frequently is in regards to writing in finger numbers and note names. It seems teachers think that students should learn to read music without the aid of finger numbers and note names. Because PLAY & READ is designed specifically for Suzuki Piano students, teachers may need to consider how finger numbers and note names fit in with their students’ learning process.
During the Volume One studies, finger numbers and note names play key roles as students gradually learn the repertoire. Because students listen extensively to the Volume One recording, they’re able to learn to “play by ear”. They have the sound of the pieces they’re learning inside their heads.
Saying or singing the finger numbers provides students with essential information where students may not intuitively choose appropriate fingering. For example, saying or singing the fingering in Honey Bee bar 3 (2-3-4-2) may help students avoid 2-3-4-3. Or in Lightly Row where students may play bar 1 as 5-4-4 instead of 5-3-3. Saying or singing the finger numbers in such spots is a secure way to assist students with developing consistent and appropriate fingering. Repetition of finger numbers also means that students make the connection between knowing the finger numbers and physically controlling or manipulating their own fingers.
Note names also add another layer to students’ Volume One learning process. Note names help students’ to accurately find specific geographic locations and pitches on the keyboard. Just think how often as teachers we might say, “Find G with finger 5” as the secure first step in playing Honey Bee. In contrast to “Find G with finger 4” as the first step in playing London Bridge. This is especially important in learning a new piece where starting on the wrong note with the wrong finger may block students’ potential for success. Repetition of note names means that students become adept in connecting the pitch they have in their head with its corresponding location on the keyboard.
In this way, finger numbers and note names positively contribute to students’ Volume One performance development. Using finger numbers and note names allows students and teachers to communicate accurately with each other.
PLAY & READ uses finger numbers and note names as a bridge from “playing by ear” to “reading by ear”. This bridging element is essential because it allows students to connect what they already know (finger numbers, note names, and their own performance) with what they know less well (written notes on a visual grand staff). It’s similar to the way children begin reading with alphabet picture books – one page has the image of a dog (something children recognize and know) and other page has the word written out (something children may know less well). The dog image acts as a bridge in helping children with their first attempts at reading.
As an introductory reading program, PLAY & READ helps students to build on what they already know as the means to discovering and developing expertise in what may be unfamiliar. By providing opportunity for students to read withfinger numbers and note names, along with opportunity to read withoutusing finger numbers and note names, PLAY & READ serves as an effective steppingstone from “playing by ear” to “reading by ear”.