How to Teach Playing in Key Signatures

I believe teaching key signatures should be a gradual thing, not introduced in the first method book/boom! Beginners are having physical trouble with black notes, anyway. To add having to remember to make the changes to them is just too overwhelming at this stage, even for adult beginners.

I have long graded my materials into "levels". This serves as a very convenient way to deal with key signatures, as well as eighth-notes, note-reading range, and so on. The beginner is so "busy" thinking about all the "alien" stuff, that key signature is just too much. And unnecessary at this early stage of learning, I believe. Here's what I do.

At what I call level 1 (early beginner), -all- key signature notes are written in as accidentals.

At level 2 (middle beginner), the key signature note is written in only on the first occurrence in the measure. The student must remember to alter the others. Makes for some strange sounds when they forget. This is an opportunity for ear-traing because I can mention that "something doesn't seem quite right, does it?" and "which hand has the problem?" I draw a green arrow from the "accidental" to the note beside it and also from the "accidental" to the other notes in the measure, thus demonstrating that sometimes the repeated note is further in the measure and they must remember even that far away. This is also a good opportunity to point out that the barline cancels the accidental and that it must be re-written in the next measure ("Pretend you are crossing over the border into France. You have to speak French the whole time you're there. Once you cross the border out of France you don't have to speak French anymore.").

At level 3 (advanced beginner), the full key signature is in place.

Even then, I use an interim step: we circle all the altered note (I use red; well, the student uses red, as the student must find them all). This is an opportunity to say that the line or space on which the sharp/flat is placed was chosen for aesthetic (to keep them on the staff proper) and readability reasons (an example is Bb - - "It's hard to be sure what is meant when the flat sign sits above the staff, isn't it?"). I also mention that a give sharp or flat is always on the same note; it isn't marked on one C one time and on as different one in another piece.

Eventually, the red circles are eliminated; usually when the hand "learns" what a certain key signature "feels like." The student often decides when to quit the red circles ("I don't need the circles anymore.").

Very occasionally a student will want to continue with the red circles indefinitely (like a noted conservative columnist, who has published a special series of pieces where all the black notes on the keyboard - - but not notes such as E# - - are printed in red). In this case, I announce that "it's time" to remember the key signature without crutches. This is a rare case, though.

You might want to try out this method with an early beginner or two and see how it works for you.

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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