Flats vs minors
Found in: Accompaniment
Stephen R., California
I’ve noticed at certain points in the curriculum students struggle, slow down, or “hit walls”. A lot might have to do with difficulty fluctuating throughout. I haven’t started Level 4 yet, but this probably continues in later levels. With average beginners, I think it really starts to slow down once Alma Mater blues is completed mid-Level 2.
I’ve seen many students struggle with Light of First Dawning in accompaniment, especially playing to the audio recordings. Also, in accompaniment I’ve seen several students mix up flat chords with minors once those are introduced.
Is there a list compiled of areas in the curriculum teachers should slow down or give extra focus? It’s hard to see this when you don’t exactly know what’s ahead or until you start teaching it.
Jennifer L., California
I’m just going to address one aspect of Stephen’s message here:
“Also, in accompaniment I’ve seen several students mix up flat chords with minors once those are introduced.”
This has been an issue among some of my students too. And it seems to go hand in hand with another issue: students not understanding, when playing chords, that the root of the Bb chord is Bb and not B! (Or that the root of the Ab chord is Ab and not A, or that the root of the Db chord is Db and not D, etc.) This has come up even when I was absolutely certain that they understood the naming of the black keys. But what I’m discovering is that, for some students, understanding it theoretically (which is mostly what’s required when we first introduce the concept – in Bishop Street Blues, it’s really only the Bb that we’re naming in the teaching of that song), doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re able to make practical use of this information.
I don’t know yet if my new strategy will completely address it because it is so new. (Just started doing this a month or so ago.) But on the chance that it will help anyone’s students avoid that confusion or any other, I’ll share it with you.
I now make a really big point, when introducing sharps and flats just before teaching Bishop, of the fact that these notes – the black keys on the piano – are separate and distinct notes, despite the fact that they borrow their names from the white keys. I tell my students that the notes Bb and B (or D# and D, or Gb and G, etc.) could not be more different from one another. Then I play the two notes simultaneously, and I tell them that the dissonance they hear is an indication of just how very different these two notes are.
Then, when I introduce minor chords, I make a big point of telling the students that “minor” refers to the quality of the chord, and is not indicating what the root (or bottom note) of that chord is.
Hope this is helpful for someone. I’ll find out soon how effective it is in my own studio!
Gordon Harvey, Australia
What this issue boils down to is that flat is a note and minor is a chord. Jennifer’s strategy seems like a good one to me. Here’s another couple of things you can do:
When you introduce Bb in Bishop St Blues, make it into a slightly bigger topic by having students spend time processing more flat notes. Ask them, “if this note is B and this note is Bb, and we find it by going down a half-step, can you find Ab? How about Eb?” etc. Have them spend time with that through the week. At some point you can mess with their heads by asking for Cb or Fb, but then you’d say “it’s true, a white note can be a flat too, but you won’t need to worry about that for now”. If you’re really thorough, you would bring up the flat-finding exercise again occasionally to keep them mindful of it, or at least a few weeks prior to the time they’ll start finding major chords on the flat notes.
Also, it’s helpful to make sure they are clear that the first chords they learn are major. At the earliest stages of the accompaniment process, you will probably just be referring to the chords as C or G rather than CMaj, GMaj etc. At some point you can say, “Soon we’ll be learning some new types of chords. There are lots of different kinds, with names like minor, suspended, diminished, minor 7 and so on. Actually, the chords we’ve used so far have names. Nearly all of them have been major chords. As you might expect from the name, they are the most commonly used chords in most western music, in fact they’re kind of the default chord, so usually we just refer to them by the name of the note they begin on. But for the next little while, just to keep things really clear, we’ll be using their name, major”.
Get them to play a few while naming them so they’re clear what you mean. Show them some lead sheets that have a variety of chords and make sure they understand that if the chord only shows the note name, it’s a major. You might go back to Honey Dew and see that it contains some chords with a little m in their name, and say “that’s a chord called a minor. We never mentioned it because you didn’t need to know, but soon we’ll learn about minor chords and it’ll give you a whole lot more exciting sounds to play with”. Refer to majors by name for the next week or two before, and for some time after, introducing minors.
This might sound a bit over the top, but you can weave it into an inspiring conversation about the huge musical vista that these different chords open up. Besides, it’s better to go a bit too far in pre-empting a problem than fixing it up later.
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
For younger students, they absolutely LOVE using Jennifer Lee’s Buggzart cards to practice finding the black notes. They need consistent reinforcement of sharps & flats after Bishop St. Blues, so I usually grab the cards and do a round robin, first removing the cards that do not have a flat or sharp. They simply pull a card and find the note on the piano. The parents are part of this round robin.
The kids will actually beg to do another round of Buggzart cards. It feels like a game to them. Thank you Jennifer!
Jennifer L., California
Oh, Laurie, I’m so happy to hear that your students are enjoying the Buggzart Key Cards! Yay! Thank you for sharing this! I can only hope they’re serving all of our wonderful teachers as well.