Why teach pre-reading repertoire

My teaching has evolved. Hopefully it will continue to do so as I make more discoveries and have more experiences with students. One of my goals used to be to get students to reading lines and spaces as soon as possible. That goal has changed drastically. Not to the point that I teach everything by rote, but I have learned to slow down the reading process through an exploration of pre-reading pieces. Usually I do this for the entire first year of piano study, sometimes longer. Before describing the repertoire I use I want to explain my thought process on why I have come to spend so much time with pre-reading repertoire.

First of all, our students come to us because they want to play music. But, sometimes as teachers we instead give lectures on technique and give lengthy theory assignments. I am not saying either of these are bad, but when that new student is excited to learn to play, we need to make sure that enthusiasm continues and give them something to play. Our long term goal is that music is always the motivator for music study, not trophies and stickers. So we need to make sure music making is present from the very beginning. (That said, I have used stickers, trophies, dressing up, candy, etc. as extrinsic motivators.) Pre-reading pieces and student compositions in pre-reading notation allow us to teach tuneful and memorable pieces to our students much sooner.

Pre-reading lets us focus on technical aspects of playing without needing to focus on reading lines and spaces. No reading method is perfect, but one of my biggest issues with the Middle C approach is that both thumbs are on Middle C, which is really awkward for both the 1 fingers and the wrists. Other methods delay using all 5 fingers. With pre-reading supplemental materials I can pick pieces to help students build a solid technical foundation no matter what method I use.

Pre-reading pieces can often explore and introduce students to different tonalities. Many of the reading approaches limit student to only hearing pieces in major tonalities. With pre-reading we usually learn melodies based on pentatonic and minor scales and experience tone clusters. What a great way to make sure our students hear pieces which are not always major!

Pre-reading is often easier for students to sing. I make my students sing a lot. Singing leads to natural phrase shaping, develops interval awareness and simply makes better musicians. Pieces centered around Middle C might be easier to read on the staff, but young students will not be able to sing notes below Middle C and should not be asked to. Singing teachers will actually tell you that young singers should sing tunes which use the F above Middle C and higher. (Yes, this means that you as a teacher should be using that same range and singing in your head voice, not singing with your speaking voice.) I know that as a teacher I cannot totally avoid ever going below that F, but pre-reading notation allows me to have musical experiences in the student's optimal singing range.

Pre-reading reinforces rhythm reading without lines and spaces. When we play, we are processing many different pieces of information. We have finger numbers, piano keys, rhythm, pulse, shaping, notation. Anytime we can remove one item it allows us to use more brain capacity for something else. This is why we so often tap out a rhythm before actually playing or why we will use syllabic counting instead of metric. If I can remove reading on the staff it is much easier for me to help a student develop a sense of pulse and concentrate on creating music in the rhythm. I think we too often spend our time on the definition of the note values instead of learning to feel the rhythmic motion and how the rhythm creates the gesture of the phrases. (Another topic for a future post there!) I love being able to work on rhythm shaping without needing to do on staff reading.

Pre-reading encourages directional reading. This is huge for me. I have some parents who try to "help" with student reading by teaching them the mnemonic devices of Every Good Boy Does Fine or All Cows Eat Grass. These devices have their time and place, but it is much more important for students to learn to read by seeing the direction of the notes and not memorizing letters on the staff.
With pre-reading pieces we can work on phrase shaping, dynamics, explore articulations, all without needing to fully read music which would be more complicated if notated on lines and spaces. First year students can make beautiful music and if we focus on their musical expression right away from the beginning it is just another step to creating musically sensitive playing for their entire lives.

Now that you are hopefully considering using more pre-reading repertoire, I want to go over some of the materials I use. I actually often begin with student compositions. We can do this right away in the first lesson when we learn our finger numbers. We will make up some kind of words and put lines above the words. 
The student will then put either the number 2 or 3 on each line. The student can then play their composition on the black keys using their 2 and 3 fingers. We can do this type of activity with 2, 3 and 4 on three black keys or on three chosen white keys. This does not include the directional reading aspect, but it is really helpful for a student who is needing work on finger numbers. We can also fill in a composition using letter names. I find these student compositions especially helpful with some students who are just a bit slower at assimilating concepts. Since we make up new words for each composition even if we do not change the parameters (2 and 3 or CDE of FGAB or whatever) we have an endless supply of pre-reading pieces. As you can tell with my example, I do not always have our words rhyme. It is ok to not rhyme. Especially when we have students making up their own pieces we need to let them have freedom to create something which speaks to them. Eventually you could add that parameter in if you have the student creating parallel phrases or contrasting phrases. Yes, you could be teaching these concepts before reading on the staff!

Moving on to repertoire composed by pedagogical composers. Many modern method books will start with pre-reading pieces. Rarely will I teach a method which begins with on the staff (usually only with a student who has learned reading concepts already with another instrument). Even with adults I will use a method which begins with pre-reading. I am not going to survey methods here, I just want to explore supplemental materials.

On of the first volumes I use is Ready, Set, Play! Halloween Songs . Usually students have started lessons in September so doing Halloween pieces soon after that follows the calendar. (If by some chance the student starts in January, it does not work as well.) There is one piece which only uses C, D and E, one piece only uses two black keys, one uses only F,G,A,B, others use white keys based around C, others are in C Position. Two of the pieces have students playing hands together. It has become one of the books all my beginning students use. One of my favorite pieces is "Ghosties" by Timothy Brown. I just love this ending! What a way to get a beginning student to start to listen to dissonance and resolution.

Soon after Halloween I start Christmas music. I do not necessarily like doing Christmas music early in November, but I have learned that if we actually want to play the pieces fluently and be able to play a lot of Christmas carols well, we need to start them in November. My two favorite volumes are Christmas Carol Activity Book   and My First Christmas Carols both by Gayle Kowalchyk. I like these because they are not too busy with too many pictures and both have the complete carols included instead of just one phrase (often the case in the Bastien Piano Party books and the Music for Little Mozarts books). Unfortunately, the pieces are usually in Middle C position making singing along difficult when it drops below Middle C. Eighth notes and dotted quarter notes are used, but I find that Christmas carols are a wonderful way to introduce these note values since we can usually play the rhythm by ear and then see what notation matches.

For more pieces with which students might be familiar, I use two volumes by Mary Leaf called Kids Klassics. Volume 1 has Yankee Doodle and Mary Had a Little Lamb as well as other nursery rhymes my students have sometimes not heard such as Sing a Song of Sixpence or Hey, Diddle, Diddle. Volume 2 includes Old MacDonald Had a Farm as well as many others. Both volumes use arrangements using both the black and white keys. The more difficult arrangements get their difficulty because fingers might need to spread over more than just three or two black keys. For example, this is the hand position for The Farmer in the Dell. This can be tricky for some students.

Moving on to pieces not specific for a holiday or having familiar tunes - I would suggest anytime you see a pre-reading piece composed by Mary Leaf that you buy it. She has a gift for creating pre-reading pieces which sound sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy playing and that you will not grow tired of teaching. I will tell you about a few of my favorite volumes. (Here is a link to all her works which are in the FJH catalog Mary Leaf piano music.) With all her pieces, make sure to use the teacher duets, they are very satisfying to play and help students hear the beautiful colors she creates with her harmonies.

Echoes of Scotland has two pieces, the first, The Highlands of Scotland, is a beautiful example of a pentatonic melody on the black keys. This piece can be used as a chamber music exercise with students. The first and third phrases are exactly the same in the student part, but the phrases are harmonized differently in the teacher duet part. I love having the student listen and respond to the difference by playing with different dynamics. Sometimes we might not be able to do this with our fingers, but at least we try. The second, Pipes and Drums, is a lively tune in a minor with the drones in the teacher duet. The last line is tricky, but is a great way to have students practice using arm dropping into the keys. I love using this piece to work on feeling one beat per measure. Yes, you can do that with beginning students!

Two other volumes I use a lot, especially with beginning adults are A Day in the Country and A Day in the Mountains (I am partial to the second only for vacationing reasons.) Both volumes have pieces describing animals and experiences one might have in the respective locations. These pieces have such variety in characters and sound colors I love playing the duets over and over with students. Here is one of my favorites, Evening Shadows, from A Day in the Country. This is the last line, a beautiful ending. It is somewhat simple, but requires the performer to really listen to how they are getting slower and softer.

Another volume with a lot of variety is Piano Recital Showcase. Most of these are slightly easier than the Mary Leaf solos since they use easier hand positions like left hand on two black keys, right hand on three black keys. Some of these pieces are longer (three pages!) which for some young students can be intimidating even though they use a lot of patterns. One of my favorites is "Bumper Cars" by Jennifer Linn because of the note clusters to sound like horns honking. Also kudos to Jennifer Linn for using the word "glutinous" in "The Hungry Spider". Great word!! "Pickled Pepper Polka" by Carol Klose can be tricky since the performer gets to clap and find their hand position again quickly.

Black Key Blast by Wendy Stevens has a couple pieces on the Federation Pre-Primary list, but all the pieces are worth checking out. As the title suggests, all the pieces are on black keys. I find the rhythm to be really fun in this volume. In "Ninja Power" there is a bit of syncopation, but the words nicely line up to help the student feel the energy. "Click Clock Click" is great for getting the performer to keep the flow of the quarter notes constantly moving.

The Little Butterfly Garden by Timothy Brown has six of the eleven pieces written in pre-reading notation. As with the Mary Leaf solos, make sure to play the teacher duets, these pieces are great without them but fantastic when with the duets. The duet parts really help make the characters come even more alive. I appreciate how the composer has lyrics to help the student create the sound images. For example, in "Fanfare to Butterflies" the lyrics "Come greet the butterflies" is forte and then the exact same notes are used for the third phrase but the lyrics are "Quietly watch them" and to be played piano.

I know there are more volumes out there and thankfully, more composers are creating works in this type of notation for our students. I will keep updating the list as I find more pieces, so feel free to come back and check for more pieces as I find them.

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Annotated Repertoire from "Pulling it All Together", a presentation for WMTA

Pieces to help teach phrase identification "The Highlands of Scotland" from  Echoes of Scotland  by Mary Leaf I like to use...