So here is a phrase most of us hear on loop every day.....
"Miss, where's the A?"
Ah yes, the sound of students trying to work out where the keys are on a piano. I find that keyboards and pianos can be highly deceptive. It is so easy for students to actually create a sound that it is easy to forget that they don't know what they are playing, or understand the structure of the keyboard in any way.
In some schools where I have worked, the whole notion of actually learning the piano keys seems to be glossed over and students spend the whole of KS2 or KS3 just relying on letter names written on to the keyboard. But would you write the letter names on to a cello or a trumpet? Would you deface your violin with whiteboard marker? I certainly wouldn't, so why not teach the keyboard or piano notes properly in the first place?
I am fully aware that it is difficult for students to learn notes off by heart when they play this instrument for only half an hour every week, but if they understand how the piano key pattern works, they at least stand a chance of making independent progress.
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So here are 5 quick and simple ways that you can start to imprint the knowledge of the piano keys on your students' brains.
Treat the keyboard as an instrument, and not just as a handy whole class thing that they can make up melodies on. Explicitly teach the students about the octaves and the recurring pattern. I have come across many students who don't realise that there are only 12 pitches that repeat up and down the keyboard. They thought they had to learn 88 keys to be able to play the piano. Teach your students what the white and black notes mean and how to locate specific notes so that they can work out the rest. Teach them about scales and what they look like on a keyboard.
There are a plethora of fun/silly/strange songs on Youtube to help students remember the location of the keys. One of my favourites is C Is To The Left Of The 2 Black Keys which you could have playing when students enter your room every lesson. That quick reminder will save you repeating yourself constantly for the first 10 minutes of any keyboard task.
Do It Now tasks or quick starters using piano keys are also useful little memory joggers for students. These could range from simple 'find an 'f'' style tasks to more complex work linking written notation to the correct key on the piano. If you have any pianists in the room then why not test their knowledge of tenor or alto clef?
To write, or not to write? That is the question!
I am split over this one. On the one hand, I hate writing on an instrument with a whiteboard marker. It sort of feels like cheating! It also makes an incredible mess of your keys over time and is hugely irritating when some well-meaning student writes the wrong notes on. It also means the majority of students will rely on the note names being written on and never actually learn how to work out the keys for themselves.
On the other hand, it removes a learning barrier for many students. They can focus on learning the melody you have given them or writing down their composition without that extra thing stopping their progress.
A happy medium is to use note finders. These could be stuck up around your learning area or cut to the same size as your keyboards and slotted on. Personally, I find these very useful as it allows instant differentiation in your classroom. The students who should be pushing themselves and learning the instrument correctly are able to do that without a constant whiteboard marker reminder, whilst the students who need that extra help can have it.
So these are just 5 quick ideas that I use. The real message of this post is to remember that students should know where the keys are and that the keyboard or piano notes are easy to work out in a recurring pattern. But they do need to be taught how this works first!