Acquiring Grace

“Folly is in the heart of a child: the rod
will drive it from him.”
Proverbs 22:15 

When I encountered these words as a cathedral chorister I realised instinctively how sadists (of whom there was no shortage in Canterbury) would use it as a cover for child-abuse; and when I got older I discovered that that was indeed the truth. I have twice heard that very verse quoted by right wing Christians as justification for corporal punishment. While utterly rejecting that approach, the first part of the sentence does in fact embody a profound truth. Suppose we rephrase it: ‘confusion is in the heart of a child’ – it immediately makes clear that the last thing likely to dispel it is brutality in any form. (If western education has learnt anything during my lifetime it is at least that.)

As a teacher of beginner pianists I often encounter a great deal of confusion in the hearts of 6-10 year olds – and my way of ‘driving it from’ them is to lead them simply and clearly towards the musical identity which I feel intuitively suits them. While accepting the existence of a dyslexia syndrome, I feel the term has been greatly devalued by being applied randomly to almost anyone with learning difficulties, whereby an illusion is created that the child in question has a known problem for which there is a recognized solution. In my experience this is often not the case – and it would be preferable if, by accepting the broader concept of confusion, we could accept that what the child requires is personal attention and the adaptation of teaching methods to suit hir particular sensory requirements.

I prefer to see the process of learning as one of gathering personal coherence, rather than acquiring knowledge or skill. As a teacher you’re helping someone into a new skin, and it’s important that it feels completely natural to them. My goal is to help pupils (of any age) become more in tune with themselves, the music is merely a mechanism for this – as one helps them towards skills & knowledge which they find emotionally relevant the process creates a virtuous circle that engages their interest and thus generates the motivation which leads to accelerated progress.

My personal observation is that nearly all young children experience this confusion. The greater the intelligence, the more quickly s/he grows out of it naturally as literacy helps them decode & prioritise visual information. But many of those starting piano between 6-8 have not completed the natural process - and for them, as well as for genuine dyslexics, the sheer density of monochrome information on a page of printed music can be really daunting.

Perhaps you know the Yiddish term klutz? It doesn’t just express clumsiness, it also means someone whose mental processes are not attuned to the task in hand. The process of ‘deklutzification’ is essentially one of helping someone attune their physical energy to the type of gesture required and to develop muscular expertise, and simultaneously to focus their consciousness on the accompanying thought-processes and the surrounding aesthetic/s. You could take the view that all life is a process of deklutzification, of slowly fighting your way from the fogs of confusion into the sunlight of personal clarity. I don’t know whether leading performers would use such a word, but the essence of ‘mastery’ is surely the achievement of dexterity and grace – which is the opposite of the klutzy or ungraceful … not to say disgraceful!

For those with the aptitude, learning the piano (or, no doubt, any other instrument) can greatly assist that clarifying process. To be sure it imposes another set of tasks but these act to shed a sidelight on the main ones. The alternative perspective which piano playing /music reading gives a child may often be the key to unblocking problems encountered in absorbing conceptual information at school. Ultimately, if offered flexibly, everything contributes to the life-long process of achieving personal coherence.

Thus to me, assisting pianists achieve their potential is a byproduct of my interest in the structure of wisdom, and the life-long imperative –which any other scorpio will appreciate– to understand, to arrive at unmediated knowledge. Why? Don’t ask. It's the same reason people climb mountains: because they're there.

As a result of this constant quest to dissolve barriers to free perception, I’ve invented ColourMuse – a coloured-note piano teaching system where the colours of the printed note-heads correspond to the colours of the piano keys. I devised it in 2002 as a result of my music software program introducing the facility for coloured music printing – applying the colours to music which I had already collected, some of which I had composed, some of which my pupils had composed, and some of which was published copyright material. The printed page appears as conventional musical orthography in black print except for the coloured note-heads.

Each book is accompanied by a colour chart which is placed behind the keyboard and also by a coloured stickers which can be placed directly on the white notes.

There are two benefits of colour. One is that it makes the page bright and exciting. The other is that for the early stages children don't need to worry about pitch data - they simply associate pitch with colour. This means that they need only decode two pieces of information per note (pitch colour & rhythm shape) rather than have to stop & scratch their heads about which line or space it is. With coloured notes all age-groups can grasp staff notation immediately. Having taught beginners for many years using black notation, I’ve noticed the dramatic difference in progress with coloured notation. While beginners usually find time values easy to understand, because the note/tail shapes are reasonably distinct, but most seem to have a lot of difficulty distinguishing pitch with black notes. Nearly half the children I’ve taught, including some scholarship level girls, have found it hard to perceive lines & spaces as representing adjacent notes: however when noteheads are colorized they simply take the pitch data directly from the colour. Recent research has shown that this is because the brain processes colour in a different receptor, and thus the recognition bypasses the complex decoding required when the language of musical are presented as monochrome symbols.

Why then use the stave at all? I think it is better for young learners to be familiar with the general appearance of printed music, so that the transition which they will need to make about 18 months after starting does not then require them to confront something completely new.

My primary concern in the early stages is to foster excitement and see that each pupil develops a real momentum. This gives a valuable emotional resource for the later period when things get trickier. I know nothing so conducive to this process as my coloured notation. I cannot too much emphasise the difference this has made to the progress of beginners over the last 3 years since I introduced it.

One enthusiastic 8 year-old pianist, F, can barely read the titles of the music and yet can recognise every note on the stave – the very opposite to the normal state of affairs. Part of the reason for his progress is unquestionably my ColourMuse notation. His mother writes: “As you taught F from a similar age to [my older son] J it has been interesting watching F's development under your ColourMuse method as opposed to J’s [with black notation]. F’s musical development seems to be progressing at a far greater rate than J's did. The system is clear and well presented which helps F to understand the process and focus and as importantly helps us (non-music readers) to guide his practice. He has totally engaged with all the pieces so far and without any prompting is motivated to play at all hours of the day including as soon as he gets out of bed.”

All learning processes should be based on each learner's individual needs. I believe in giving young pianists music they enjoy, first & foremost – familiarity is the best incentive. This doesn't mean that at a later stage I won't try to wean them off the safe & familiar onto more testing musical territory. I endeavour to lead pupils along individual paths that matches their personal tastes & abilities - be those contemporary popular styles, classical repertoire, improvisation, or something more experimental.

From my observation of the difference in young children’s responses to black and coloured notation I conclude that this ‘confusion’ is almost a normal condition in under eights. The difficulty in decoding a set of monochrome symbols links, I believe, to difficulties with ‘handedness’, the instinctive selection of a specific hand or finger. I’ve come to see both as a byproduct of the ‘natural’ difficulties children have learning to read visual information, especially where this demands an immediate sensorimotor response.

Avoiding the abstract words right and left can help a lot, and for this reason I call the treble clef the lollipop hand and the bass the snail – creating clear mental images for the child that bypass the hesitation that abstract words can cause, even in adults. By reducing the density of monochrome data for all beginners the whole process of brain-hand coordination seems to develop faster. Even with able children coloured notes accelerate the prioritsation both visual and ‘handed’ information much faster than black.

Another observation, not related to notation, is that pupils progress far faster with an acoustic piano than they do with an electronic keyboard. Obviously, I can produce no hard evidence for this, but I have noticed a definite correlation between rapid progress and access to a piano with good action, while in some cases where stagnation (lack of motivation) developed I have strongly suspected that an electronic keyboard was part of the problem. The reason I suspect is that as the sound quality of the piano is so intimately connected with physical gesture it leads naturally to a biofeedback loop where the responses of the instrument itself guide the imaginative pupil’s touch, resulting in a virtuous circle. Contrariwise, with the cheaper electronic keyboards, variations in tone quality are nonexistent and in any case the (young) player’s attention is far more preoccupied by selecting different voices – which is hardly the point of piano lessons(!) Digital pianos come somewhere in the middle, okay for the early stages, but hopelessly outpaced in concert music.

ColourMuse is of particular benefit to those with learning difficulties – as this testimonial from the from the parent of a 15 year old Down Syndrome girl confirms: You have developed a wonderful and much needed breakthrough in the world of music. This will create a bridge for many children, and in particular those with learning difficulties /disabilities, who have a natural love of music but cannot access it by the normal route. Many parents would never consider it possible for their child to learn to play music. It is like giving them a key to opening the door to learning to play music. Reading music in the conventional way is, in many ways, like learning to use number symbols; both are complex - too abstract. Using colour notation and enhancing each note with memorable characters, is not only fun, but it also brings meaning to what is being learnt.

“C has a natural curiosity for music and when she was younger she used to climb on to the piano stool and 'play' quite sensitively. Later I bought her a Casio keyboard with ‘key lighting’ to provide a way in. Before coming to you she had been playing her favourite songs from the Casio songbank and it gave her many hours of enjoyment. I was very grateful that you didn't try to fit her into the conventional route, instead you built on what she was doing, supplementing it with your coloured notes pasted on the keyboard. Since this September when you started teaching her from the ColourMuse book, she has begun to use both hands, I am beginning to see that C is slowly making progress. She no longer depends on the lighted keys and songbank to play, she is in fact reading the notes of the pieces she is practising. Obviously with her disability it is going to take longer to progress, but I do believe you have opened the door to something very exciting for her.”

As I indicated earlier on, any activity can bring us life lessons, but we only really learn them when we can relate the activity to something beyond itself. So long as we think we’re merely teaching someone to play the piano then that imposes a ceiling on what either party will get out of it. If however we think we’re opening a window into a world of non-verbal awareness which allows students access to aspects of their unique self and to the metaphysical ‘reality’ which surrounds us – then we’re introducing them to an inexhaustible resource for their lives.

Just as the piano action itself gives us biofeedback which improves the grace of our playing, so the timbral quality of music give biofeedback which assists us in clarifying our intentions. And those two qualities, grace and clarity, best express what I mean by deklutzification. Few are born to glide down life’s highway in a limousine, most of us struggle; so the process of acquiring any degree of grace and clarity is a life-long task. Yet ultimately it is that struggle that dignifies us as human beings. And to me, it matters more to assist young people negotiate their own access point to that relationship with music than any yellowing bits of paper framed on a wall. 

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