07 Jan 2014

I think at one point or another, every piano teacher has used “the sentences.”  You know the ones…

Every good boy does fine
Every girl buys dad flowers
All cows eat grass
All good boys with fudge buy cows filled with gas from dads with flowers…… (???)

goodcows

So why do we use them?
Because our teachers did?  Because we don’t know what else to use?  Because they work every time?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these sentences never work.  For some students, they end up working quite well.  But how many teaching tactics these days work for EVERY student the same way every time?  There’s always that handful of students who use them as a crutch, and then ALWAYS try to use them.  Regardless of how well their intervocalic sight reading becomes, you put a bass clef flash card in front of them, or ask them what a certain note is in their music, and then you see one of the worst sights that a piano teacher can behold…   “Every….good….boy…..DOES!   D!!”

AHhhhh!!!! The silent counting up!!  Please, anything but that!!

Most of us started using the sentences for the purpose of teaching the notes quickly and with ease.  Which initially, seemed like a good idea.  Acronyms and mnemonic devices have been proven to help people remember lots of things in many areas.  However, as soon as you take the notes out of E-G-B-D-F order and mix them up, now you’re messing with the syntax, and trying to teach students to bypass the sentence and let their visual recognition take over.

If that is slow to sink in, then weeks later young students are wasting valuable time thinking through five words because someone taught them that a note at the top of the treble clef staff was “Fine,” the caboose of a five word sentence.  When that happens, what good was the time you might have saved that first day?

With new students, especially those whom I can tell love a challenge, I’ve hardly been using the sentences anymore, and it’s going GREAT.  I believe in notes by sight as early as possible.  I still separate the lines and spaces, and usually the kids will make their own connections about FACE when they see the notes stacked up.  But after that, especially with the ambitious young ones, I twist the line note learning around a bit so that immediate recognition by sight prevails.

For the really young ones, I make the line notes sound like a reward.  They get their space notes to memorize, usually with a set of flashcards, and then I pull 2 line note cards out of another spot, like I was saving them for a special day.  ”But sure, let’s take a look…”

Then they’re intrigued.
I’ll introduce the letters, then put both cards behind my back, switching them around constantly.  They keep picking a different hand, and when they can identify both of them easily, I act impressed and say, “Wow you’re doing great, I normally save the others for the next lesson but I think you might be able to handle one more..”  And they smile proudly, so then I pull another one out and we do all 3, mixing them in randomly with space cards.  And then, “You think you can really handle another one? Really?? Are you sure???”

And then before you know it they’re leaving with all of the cards, and can’t wait to practice them a ton to prove how wrong you were for thinking you might only send them home with two.  Ta-DA!    Of course then there’s plenty of follow up exercises with notes that are next to each other, and notes in sets of 3′s, intervals..etc…

Again, I’m not encouraging everyone to ditch the sentences in every situation.  I’m sure teachers have run into this problem before and have come up with their own creative solutions, which I would love to hear about.

It just never hurts to have a few other tricks up your sleeve!

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About the Author


Amber Staffa is a performing arts graduate of Rowan University. She holds a BA in Subject Matter Teaching for K-12, and a BM in Instrumental Music Education with a Piano Concentration, and is currently licensed in the state of NJ.

2 Responses to Every Good Boy Does NOT Do Fine!
  1. Amber,

    Great article! I have struggled with this as well, both when I learned to read music (20-some years ago), and with teaching my clarinet students. I try to explain that just as we see a three-sided polygon, we instantly say “Triangle”, or when shown 2+2 we instantly know “4″, eventually the goal in music is to see a note on the fourth line and immediately know “D”. Plus, there are only 24 notes (no accidentals) from the lowest to highest note on the clarinet: less than the number of letters in the alphabet!

    My question: how do you teach to the students who have already learned the mnemonics, or even if they didn’t, they still learn “middle C” and count from there? Even after I explain the idea of visual recognition, when I use flash cards it’s often about 10 seconds before I get an answer, and I can see them saying “Every Good Boy Does…D!” in their head.

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for reading! I know so many teachers have this issue, and in my experience, the students who tend to continue to experience this delayed not naming are the ones who aren not strong with their music alphabet relationships in the first place. So for instance, could they name the alphabet backwards from G, forward from E, up in skips from D, backwards in skips from F, up in 4ths, etc… If they can’t, they’re relying ONLY on the single letter recall when they synthesize their note recognition, and are not relating the new information to something else they know. This almost ALWAYS takes longer. I do use only the space notes after teaching the guidepost notes. The spaces take less time to learn, and then if students have good experience with note distances, they can fill the lines quickly thinking “one up from.. on down from..” I do a lot of pattern cards instead of single note flashcards, as well. Very seldom do students play only single notes separate from each other. We read music in patterns, so “starting on F and going up in steps” is just as valuable of a conclusion as “E F G” when students connect to notation. As a basic summary of my philosophy, we’re all more likely to commit meaningful things to memory than random information. So creating relationships between different notes on the staff is usually the fastest way to get to that instant visual recognition by memory that we all want.

      I hope you find this helpful! I’m moving this blog and resource lab portion of my site over to http://www.codaconnection.com
      All my new stuff gets posted there, so check it out if you get a chance.


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