Steps to Understanding Notes and Intervals

Not my school, but you get the idea.

I teach piano twice a week to small groups of students at my middle school. Last week I began teaching them about intervals, and I noticed that I wasn’t getting the concept across in all cases. Nevertheless, I forged ahead with the examples in the book as though they were gospel, even as I made a mental note to research other methods for future lessons.

I still hadn’t thought of anything by lesson time today, when, as they were filing into my studio, it hit me.

“Come with me,” I said. “Let’s take a walk.”

We walked to the atrium, which houses two large staircases. They gathered at the bottom while I explained the game. I told them that these steps were the keys on the piano keyboard, and that we were working in the key of C. I announced the names of the “keys” as I dropped note flashcards on each step, starting with C and ending with G. I then told my students to stand on the notes that I called out.

That was fun! Some cried out as they marched up to F, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” Okay, I thought, this was going to work well.

It was time to try intervals. I asked them how many steps they needed to take from C to stand on G. One said 3, another 4.

“Well,” I said, “in music you have to start with the note you’re on and count it. You also count the one you end up on.”

“Oh,” one of them said, stepping off the interval. “One … two … three … four … FIVE!”

“Right!” I exclaimed. “Perfect!”

We went on like that. They counted up from C and down from G, and then they began counting up and down from wherever they were. A third down from F? No problem. A fourth up from D? Easy.

We then went back to the studio and worked out on mini whiteboards what these intervals looked like on the staff. I had them start with C and go up and down by various intervals. It was tougher than the steps, but they were able to get it since they had the concept. We then took our “compositions” back to the stairs and did some “sight-reading.” Finally, back to the piano to hear the piece.

I think my students enjoyed the break in routine as much as the activity itself. They’re in school all day, and my studio is a small, unused office with a donated upright in it. I love it, but to them it’s still a classroom. Today they got to move.

But as much as I enjoyed doing this myself, I doubt I’ll use a staircase to teach glissandi!


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