Reading the Grand Staff
Ah, the lies our piano teachers taught us! Okay, only one lie, the other concept is more of a "WTH, why would you teach it THAT way?". And before anyone gets offended, I was also taught this way- and understand that we tend to teach in the way we learned, so this teaching strategy has some deep roots. As a teacher, this strategy just didn't work for me, so through research, trial, and error, I've created my own somewhat unique ways of teaching this concept. And just to be sure I give appropriate credit, much of this is a synthesis of concepts from "A Soprano on Her Head" by Eloise Ristad (the sideways staff), and Max Camp's intervallic mapping concept from "Teaching Piano: The Synthesis of Mind, Ear, and Body".
First of all- the lie. Middle C is NOT the middle of the piano (gasp!). Middle C is the middle of the grand staff- identical in both the treble and bass clefs and the same for all instruments. The symmetrical middle of the piano is D. Think about it- a half step up and down, black key. Another half step in both directions, white key, a third half step, white key, etc. That blew my mind when I figured that out, and while it is not the point I'm making with this post, it is important to realize that when positioning your new beginning student at the piano- especially as you move into the G position, but moving on...
Middle C is the center of the musical staff:
In the bass clef, the space below middle C is a B, the line below that is A, etc.. For the treble clef, the space above middle C is D, the next line is E, etc. The staff, at least for those of us in the US (where we don't use the solfege scale) is alphabetical, and makes total LOGICAL sense. As a matter of fact, if you enlarge the staff, and turn it sideways, the lines and spaces line up with the keys of the piano- I do often draw the lines on my piano keyboard in pencil for my young students so they can visualize the steps and skips as they play.
So why, WHY do teachers (my own teachers included) use the insanely complex method of memorizing sayings to teach the staff? I truly have only had negative reactions to using this method:
1. It doesn't make sense- why aren't the lines and spaces for the staves the same? (Because middle C IS the same, and everything fans out from there)
2. It hinders sight reading- one note doesn't flow from the next. You have to get to the next note, figure out whether you're on the bass clef or treble clef, and then whether you need to recall the saying for lines, or spaces, and by the time a student has figured it out, any flow is gone.
3. If you teach your student that the staff makes logical sense, they will already understand how ledger lines work before you get to the point of needing to teach that concept. Middle C IS a ledger line already- an extension of the bass clef staff up, and the treble clef staff down.
4. And seriously, how much fudge do good boys need? Eye roll. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (treble clef lines) and Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always (bass clef lines). Okay, this one is just my own irritation.
Why on earth are we teaching kids these insane sayings rather than pointing out that the bottom line of the treble clef is E, the next space is F, the second line is G, the second space is A, the third line B, etc? Especially when the clefs already have alternate names (treble clef aka G clef- it curls around the G line, bass clef aka F clef- it curls around the F line).
So, here is how I teach the notes. For the piano, we start with C position- in each hand you have a finger on C, D, E, F, and G. I use marker notes- E for the treble clef (it's the center of the position). E is the bottom line, it sits at the (e)dge of the staff. The next space up is... You guessed it, F. The next space down is... D. I use two flashcards at a time and have my students logically figure out what the next note is, then add one more. If you can remember that E is the bottom line, you can figure out any other note on the staff, just by knowing your alphabet and being able to count. For the bass clef, I use D as my marker note. D is the (d)ead center of the bass clef staff. The stem for the C below is pointing up. This also allows you to show how stems work, but I digress. D is the center line. The next space up is... E. The next space down is... C. Again, any student who understands the alphabet should be able to logically figure out how the staff works with minimal prompting.
When we learn to read, we don't read each individual letter in a word- we put them together in combinations that make sense- and the same concept also holds true in music. So, just to define, an interval is the distance between any two notes. This counts the starting note, any lines or spaces skipped, and the landing note.
A second, which on the staff is a note going from a line or a space (using the top line of the illustration above, our starting note is a space note) to the VERY NEXT line or space (in the illustration above, it's the next line up). On the piano keyboard, you would go from one key to the very next key. A third goes from the starting space, skips the line, and lands on the next space- 1 (starting note), 2 (skipped note), 3 (landing note). On the piano keyboard, from your starting note, you would skip one note, and play the next one. I do often draw lines (in PENCIL!) on my keyboard so visual students can SEE where the lines and spaces are. As your student reads, you prompt them for the next note- "you're on the line, move to the very next space up, skip the line and go to the next space", etc. This way, your student is moving from one note to the next in a way that makes sense.
Eventually it becomes easy to read the shapes- if you're going from a line to a space (or vice versa), your interval will always be an even number (2nd, 4th, 6th, octave). Line-line or space-space notes will always be odd (3rd, 5th, 7th)- which will also be the shape of your chords (root, 3rd, 5th, 7th (for jazz chords)).
The staff makes sense, and teaching the logic allows students to:
1. Figure it out for themselves! They will truly UNDERSTAND, and take ownership. My primary goal as a teacher is to prepare students to be able to play independent of me, and by setting them up to figure out basic concepts on their own, they are one more step down the path of independence.
2. Allows for a more natural progression- ledger lines make sense, chord shapes make sense, the relationship of treble to bass clef notes make sense.
3. Sight-reading is easier. For many students, sight-reading is terrifying, but as a pianist, you will be called on to sight read, and being able to sight read well is a VERY valuable skill.
Thanks for reading! Now go practice!
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is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.