Teaching Keyboard Percussion

Virginia Wayman Davis | September 2008

    Many directors learn percussion basics in their college methods classes but lack the knowledge to get beginning players off to a fast start on keyboard instruments. These teachers may know how to hold the mallets and tell the difference between marimba and xylophone but often have not learned the best ways to teach percussionists the best methods for learning to read music.
    The problem percussionists face is that it is difficult to look at notes on a page and bars on the keyboard at the same time. Players may be able to locate the notes on the keyboard or identify the names of the notes but have difficulty doing both at the same time. Wind players are able to play all of the notes on their instruments through touch and muscle memory. They can look at the music confident that their fingers will press the right keys.
    For percussionists all of the notes feel the same: playing a C feels the same as a D. Percussionists need to be able to see the keys so they can aim and strike, while still looking at the music to know what notes to play. Some keyboard players will either give up or begin to memorize all of their music. This results in players who do not sightread well and are not prepared for written music.
    To allow students to read the music and see the keyboard the solution is to lower to music stand so that the music sits level with the accidentals on the keyboard. This is contrary to where the stand should be for most other instruments, including the snare
and other non-pitched percussion. Normally the music stand is placed high so the line of sight includes the music and conductor. Keyboard players can use peripheral vision to look at the music and hands simultaneously.
    Demonstrate peripheral vision to students by having them look at one point after another on the music stand while waving their hands above the keys. Usually students discover that they need to look quite far up before their hands are out of their peripheral vision. Then draw the students’ eyes back down to the music. After the exercise it should seem easy for students to see the hands while reading notes on the page.
    It will not seem natural to use peripheral vision at first. Beginner will need reminding not to look directly at their hands while playing. Keyboard players usually will cheat and sneak a look at the keyboard from time to time. This is exactly what they should be doing to verify accurate playing. Such brief glances are best taken during beats of rest, not while playing a moving line of pitches.
    As percussionists become more proficient at reading music, they will learn to read groups of several notes at a time just as wind players do. For now allow students to look down at the hands a bit but not to the point that they becomes lost in the music. Through much practice students will eventually learn to move their eyes between the music, conductor, and keyboard without getting lost.
    This approach to reading should be taught from the earliest lessons on keyboard percussion. Examine the layout of the keyboard with the student and point out the organization of accidentals into groups of two or three. Locate a landmark note, preferably C or F since these lie just at the edge of the groups of two or three. Have the student find the other Cs or Fs on the keyboard using landmarks. The other notes will be learned in relation to this note. As students gain experience they should gradually memorize the location of more notes.
    Once students understand the layout of the keyboard, explain how notes are named using the alphabet. If you have a board to write on, list the pitches on it and discuss what happens after G and how the cycle continues. Then point out the letter names on the keyboard, not for memorization but just to show how the system works. When the layout of the keyboard, the naming of pitches, and the staff have been taught, it is time to introduce the reading of one to three notes. The first notes taught will differ depending on the setting. In a private lesson or group percussion lesson it is probably easiest to begin with Middle C, D, and E. However, if the student is in a mixed instrument class or beginning band, their pitches should match the other students’ concert pitch.
    Regardless of the starting note, it is best to introduce them one at a time. Allow enough time for students to practice each note and memorize its position on the staff and location on the keyboard. Students can get overwhelmed by learning too many notes and may compensate by writing in note names. Students should say the note name out loud as they play, which helps keep their mind on the page. I tell students that I do not care if they play the wrong note as long as they are moving in the right direction and say the right note name. This alleviates the fear of playing wrong notes that can cause staring at the keyboard. The muscle memory developed from moving from one note to another without looking, comes in time. If students really get off track, have them look down and quickly reorient during rests.
    If you take the time to work with beginning percussionists on lowering the stand, using peripheral vision, and saying the note-names out loud, players will have a much better chance at success. The early stages of note reading at the keyboard can be time-consuming, but if students and their teacher persevere, the reward will be players who can sightread keyboard music quickly and with confidence.