Introducing Letter Names and Clefs… part one!

Letter names and clefs blog image

Your students have been singing in solfa beautifully and know their steps and skips on the keys and the stave… now it’s time to learn about letter names and clefs!  What do you do?!

It’s a complicated subject, but we can help our students if we break it down into the tiniest steps.

What are all the things you can think of that we might need to know to teach this? The musical alphabet, landmark notes, do re mi on black keys, do re mi on white keys, tonics, treble and bass, clefs, the grand staff, middle C, tonics, “friendly tonics”, independent fingers, playing hands together… and there is certainly more!

Here’s some concepts I’ve identified:

Map of how to introduce letter names and clefs

I start in two places, do re mi on black keys and the musical alphabet.  And look!  Middle C is my very last thing!  I have a little chuckle when I think about how a lot of method books start with middle C and I finish with it! 

The paths that follow the two places I start with run alongside each other, so let’s take one of these paths and explore…

Do re mi on Black Keys

If you follow Doremi Sing and Play Piano, your students have already learnt pieces like Hot Cross Buns and Mary had a little Lamb.  If you haven’t used Sing and Play, you can teach them these pieces on the black keys as a great starting point.  A difficulty with these songs is it’s much easier for students to get their heads around letter names if we ascend with do re mi and Mary Had a Little Lamb, Hot Cross Buns and Rain is Falling Down all descend!  We know this is great from a Kodály point of view because it’s easier to sing descending notes but when we’re thinking in letter names, it’s way easier if they go up the alphabet. 

So what can we do?  The child can make some up!  It only needs to be something as simple as “I Like Cats” on do re mi.  Then, when we move them into letter names, they have these songs ready! 

Then we move on to…

Stepping towards letter names: Do re mi on White Keys

It’s easy with little toys!  Put them on the black keys and say,

 “I’m going to move do lower/higher”

Lower can be problematic because white keys sit lower than black keys and moving the toys closer to them might feel lower.  I choose to say higher first to avoid any confusion.

Small Toys on piano keys

Ask them to play Hot Cross Buns or I like Cats (or whatever their composition is) with only do in the new place – it will sound wrong!  Ask them what they need to do to make it sound right.  They can then work out that re and mi also need to go higher or lower.  Saying “higher” or “lower” at the start rather than left or right, and particularly “higher”, you’re giving them a greater chance of success!

If they go the wrong way, GREAT!  Get them to try it out!  Does it sound right?  If they’ve done the Doremi curriculum, they know that do re mi moves in steps so they can work out where they should be.

Independent Fingers and Hands Together

From here, I start to introduce independent fingers.  Until this point, they’ve been playing with cat paw shaped hands which means they’re less likely to miss the black keys and it gives them a good hand and arm position with a relaxed feeling.   When we go to using independent fingers, we don’t want claw fingers!!  While the black keys are far apart for their little hands, the white keys are much easier to play with three different fingers and they’re not going to fall off the keys.

You know all the other books talk about finger numbers?  “I won’t start teaching children until they know their alphabet, they know their finger numbers and they can discriminate high and low”. Whoa! That’s my job!  I’m going to teach them all of that but definitely not to start with.  They still don’t need to know finger numbers because they just need their three middle fingers.  We don’t know what number we’ve decided to call them.  They just find their three longest fingers, the easiest to use. 

From there we can start playing around with hands together patterns far away from any scores.  So if we play “I like cats” with one hand, we can play “I like Cats” with the other hands. We can play them together, one going backwards, one going forwards and so on.

Quite often people ask me how I do hands together hand co-ordination. This is how!

But that’s not the aim of our game.  We want to move on towards tonics!

Want more advice and ideas?

If you found this blog useful.  Please comment below if you did or if there is anything you would like to say to me about it.  If you’d like to find out more about preparing your students to learn about pitch and much more, including over a year’s worth of lesson plans for teaching all the important musical skills with Helen’s clear microsteps, why not try out Doremi Membership for 14 days for just £1

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