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Why play on the black keys as a beginner? #2881846
08/20/19 09:59 PM
08/20/19 09:59 PM
Joined: Dec 2017
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Andamento Offline OP
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A spin-off from my previous thread about the student pushing his thumbs against the vertical wood piece on the piano while he played on the black keys. I'm questioning the wisdom of having beginning students play black-keys-only pieces at all, and am wondering how that trend got started in modern methods, and what benefits, if any, people have noticed from that approach -- benefits that can't be got any other way.

Last edited by Andamento; 08/20/19 10:05 PM.
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Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2881869
08/21/19 12:38 AM
08/21/19 12:38 AM
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AZNpiano Offline
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I think it is a super idea. In particular, it helps with fingering 2-3-4 in both hands. It also helps with hand posture, as it is the natural hand position.

For the record, I preach natural hand shape. I don't believe in lining up the fingers and thumb to form a straight line.


Private Piano Teacher and MTAC Member
Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2881883
08/21/19 02:54 AM
08/21/19 02:54 AM
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Iaroslav Vasiliev Offline
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Concerning the black-keys-only pieces I think they are there mostly just to make black keys less scary, to familiarize student with them very early.

Also black keys are narrow, they require more precision to play them, but I don't really think it's the reason.

Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: AZNpiano] #2881917
08/21/19 05:54 AM
08/21/19 05:54 AM
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keystring Offline
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I was curious, googled, and it circled me right back to PianoWorld! laugh
http://forum.pianoworld.com/ubbthreads.php/topics/1708898/1.html

Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: keystring] #2881969
08/21/19 08:24 AM
08/21/19 08:24 AM
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Andamento Offline OP
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Originally Posted by keystring
I was curious, googled, and it circled me right back to PianoWorld! laugh
http://forum.pianoworld.com/ubbthreads.php/topics/1708898/1.html


Well, that was interesting! I googled it yesterday, too, but apparently didn't use the same words you did, because Piano World didn't show up in my search.

Well, it didn't show up on the first page of results, anyway, so maybe I should have dug a bit deeper. laugh

But I figured I would get better answers faster by asking here among the fine contributors now present. smile

John v. d. Brook, in that thread, had a good background of the history behind the change.

Other good discussion there, too. Thanks for posting the link.

Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: AZNpiano] #2881971
08/21/19 08:28 AM
08/21/19 08:28 AM
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Andamento Offline OP
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Originally Posted by AZNpiano
I think it is a super idea. In particular, it helps with fingering 2-3-4 in both hands. It also helps with hand posture, as it is the natural hand position.

For the record, I preach natural hand shape. I don't believe in lining up the fingers and thumb to form a straight line.


I don't use the lining-up-the-fingers-into-a-straight-line approach, either.

The methods that advocate imagining you're holding a bubble and placing your hands in that position lead to too-curved fingers, IMO. I like the idea where you stand with your hands at your sides first, and use that (natural) hand position on the keys.

I find it interesting, though, that many method books -- all the ones I've got, anyway, and I have quite a few -- when they picture correct hand position at the keyboard, the pianist has his hands placed on the white keys. Maybe it could be said that a person could intuit how to place their hands on the black keys (with 1 and 5, and sometimes 4, on the whites). But in the case of this student who prompted my previous thread, and, by extension (no pun intended), this one, his playing position on/around the blacks came anything but naturally. His hand and finger shape was grossly distorted when he was trying to push the thumbs as I've described.

Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Iaroslav Vasiliev] #2881978
08/21/19 08:41 AM
08/21/19 08:41 AM
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Andamento Offline OP
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Originally Posted by Iaroslav Vasiliev
Concerning the black-keys-only pieces I think they are there mostly just to make black keys less scary, to familiarize student with them very early.

Also black keys are narrow, they require more precision to play them, but I don't really think it's the reason.


I was thinking the same about the black keys -- they're narrower. For little kids having more difficulty with fine motor control, i.e., staying on the keys, it probably isn't surprising that he was trying to anchor his hand with the thumb grip he used to keep the playing fingers more stable.

It was the distortion of his hand shape, and the obvious tension he had while pushing the thumb against the wood, that was what got me wondering why we have little kids playing on skinnier keys to start with, while they're still developing fine motor control.

He wasn't doing anything like that while playing on the white keys only. (The method I'm using with him has some white-key pieces interspersed with the black-key pieces in the early pages.)

Interesting thought about starting on black keys to make them less scary later on. But, actually, after the black-keys-only beginning period is done, it can take quite a while for some students, depending on their pace, to get back to using some black keys again. So I'm not sure if this really helps black keys be less scary when they get to them down the road?

Wouldn't just playing the D-Flat Major scale now and then accomplish that purpose?

Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2882006
08/21/19 09:44 AM
08/21/19 09:44 AM
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Originally Posted by Andamento
I'm questioning the wisdom of having beginning students play black-keys-only pieces at all, and am wondering how that trend got started in modern methods, and what benefits, if any, people have noticed from that approach -- benefits that can't be got any other way.

I'd never heard of this concept until I chanced upon a thread in this forum a few years ago, about students "reading" 'notes floating in space' (no staves) and - in the same book, I think - starting on black notes without even knowing what they actually do (as part of a do-re-mi scale etc).

I liken that to what a toddler does when trying to walk. He can't keep his balance while standing, so his parents think it would be a good idea if he keeps "losing his balance" forwards while tottering from one parent to the other. That way, he (just about) manages not to fall flat on his face, while his parents get a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside their insides that their 7-month old child can already "run". Right.......

Are teachers starting kids on pieces in B major first? I don't think so.

Whatever happened to gradual & proper development of the correct hand & finger movements? - starting on white notes obviously, as the kid needs to get used to the feel of a flat horizontal 'key surface' and shape his hands and fingers accordingly to play it, before gradually being introduced to black keys, one by one, understanding why they exist and what they do, and of course getting the student familiar with the keyboard pattern.

Is there any classical piece for beginners written in B major or G flat major? No. Is any teacher going to teach a beginner Twinkle, Twinkle on black notes or pentatonic scales first? No (and Twinkle is impossible without white keys).

Whereas there're lots of pieces composed for beginners by great composers in C, G and F majors, and A minor. (There are examples of them in Pianist Magazine every issue). For obvious reasons. So why is anyone thinking that 'black notes before white' is a good idea, unless you mean to start as you go on - teach by rote?

OK, rant over.

P.S. I'm thinking of what happened to the educational system in a certain country where "contemporary ideas" about teaching were implemented in state schools.......with the result that there's a whole generation of teenagers who cannot do simple math and can't write or spell properly. Remedial classes had to be set up before they could go to higher education. The private schools stuck to what they'd always done, and continued to produce educated students - and their teachers laughed their heads off at the silly 'experiment' that was being foisted on a whole generation of kids who had no say in the matter.

Needless to say, someone in government eventually saw sense...........fifteen years too late.


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2882048
08/21/19 12:02 PM
08/21/19 12:02 PM
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bennevis, I'm generally of the same overall opinion as you. But....

You may have noticed my thread about trying out Adult Piano Adventures with a new student who can't read a lick of music. It does start of with two pieces on the back keys, read by finger number (gasp) but thankfully this doesn't continue long. This method proceeds logically, building things up bit by bit.

Some students will benefit from this approach, others would be bored to tears. It's my job to gauge this and use the appropriate method for the student.

As a confirmed stick-in-the-mud, that's-not-how-we've-always-done-it, get-off-my-lawn, grouch, I am very suspicious of any and all innovations. And I mean very suspicious. I never even heard of "intervallic reading" until I started participating in this forum, and I gave it the stink eye for months. But I've been investigating further based on the recommendation of multiple serious, competent teachers here. I'm still not 100% sold on it, or on modern methods in general, but if these things turn out to be useful pedagogical tools then I want them in my toolbox.

Just today I ran into that new student. He told me (without me asking) that what I was teaching him about steps/seconds and musical contour makes a lot of sense, and is much easier than reading finger numbers (thank the gods). So these tools appear to be useful, at least in this one case study.

But rest assured that I'm not going to toss old John Thompson completely, though. At minimum, I'll still teach J. T. Modern Book 3 - so much good stuff in there.


Austin Rogers, PhD
Music Teacher in Austin, TX
Baldwin SD-10 Concert Grand "Kuroneko", Baldwin Upright, Yamaha P-255
Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2882919
08/24/19 02:27 AM
08/24/19 02:27 AM
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Orange County, CA
AZNpiano Offline
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I'm just guessing here, but the 2-3-4 on black keys idea might be a reaction against the older method books that rely on Middle C position. Several possibilities here:

1) Students get to move up and down the keyboard, so they are not stuck forever in one Middle C position.

2) Students get to know directions (up = right; down = left)

3) Students get additional exercises in rhythm and counting steady quarter notes, and they can move during a rest--and get to the next position by the next beat.

4) If the notes are typeset at the correct angles, students get a head start on intervallic reading. A couple of publishers have the angles that are too steep for steps, and make no distinction between steps and skips. In that case, students get additional exercises in 2-3-4 finger numbers.


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Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2883319
08/25/19 01:22 PM
08/25/19 01:22 PM
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I’ve heard teachers that start on the B maj scale. I found black keys scary when I began, but now seem to play pieces that have a mostly black keys, such as Db maj. They’re not so scare after all.


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Re: Why play on the black keys as a beginner? [Re: Andamento] #2884237
08/27/19 11:13 PM
08/27/19 11:13 PM
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Iaroslav Vasiliev Offline
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Originally Posted by Andamento

Interesting thought about starting on black keys to make them less scary later on. But, actually, after the black-keys-only beginning period is done, it can take quite a while for some students, depending on their pace, to get back to using some black keys again. So I'm not sure if this really helps black keys be less scary when they get to them down the road?

Wouldn't just playing the D-Flat Major scale now and then accomplish that purpose?

I think you asked the right questions. There is no logic in introducing black keys early and then almost dropping them off for quite some time. Whatever the reason for their early introduction is, it's necessary to keep them in use in that case.

I've heard of a teacher who transposes all the pieces for beginners to B maj and teaches like that, following Chopin's concept of the most natural hand shape. There may be a drawback in this approach, because black keys require flatter fingers and beginner students may not learn to curve their fingers properly right from the start, but at least this teacher has got consistency in what he does. I'm not aware of the results.


One more idea concerning black-keys-only pieces is that they may be meant to teach pentatonic music, but I doubt that this is the case either.


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