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Old 11-12-2006, 04:03 PM   #1
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Default Teaching students who can't read music

I've had a gentleman approach me to teach him pipes "the right way." He has experimented with the pipes and has a set, but hasn't been properly taught. He's already an accomplished musician, playing guitar, banjo, harmonica, tin whistle, and Uillean pipes, but in his own words "I can't read a note and don't care to but I really would like to become a better piper."

I'm wondering if anyone has suggestions for teaching without sheet music. One of my former teachers (a very experienced piper and teacher) often teaches students without music, but I don't have a lot of experience teaching, so I haven't developed any techniques or strategies for this sort of thing. Any ideas? Thanks!
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Old 11-12-2006, 04:18 PM   #2
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

In the old days, they used Canntaireachd to teach the tunes. It's essentially teaching the tunes by singing them.

If he's motivated, he'll learn, one way or the other.

The main reasons to learn piping with written music are 1) the student has something visual to refer to when learning the tunes and 2) eventually he can learn tunes on his own from the vast piping literature.

It is my observation that in any piping class, whether the students have a piece of paper in front of them or not, the teaching is done by rote. And rote learning makes for quick memorization.
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Old 11-13-2006, 07:39 AM   #3
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

Keydetpiper: There is generally "trouble in River City" when someone makes a request to learn "the right way" and at the same time puts restrictions on what he'll learn (e.g., "don't care to" learn to read music). So which is it?

To be a better piper, I believe that he needs to learn the music, which also includes the gracenotes and embellishments. Can he play better without doing so? Of course. But why not learn? It's not like pipe music is all that difficult.

There are tutorials out there which teach playing of various instruments and where reading the actual music is not taught initially. The Suzuki method is one of the better known methods of this type. The piping equivalent is where you learn the finger position to a note on the staff, without necessarily knowing initially what that note is.

That said, he's going to make your job difficult if he puts restrictions on what he's willing to learn and not learn. Good luck! Michael
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Old 11-13-2006, 10:59 AM   #4
Gary Guth
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

The only thing I might do differently at this point with him is to incorporate him writing the note names next to the note heads before he starts learning the tune. He can learn all of the positions first. I would then go back and break down the the rhythm in sylables: 1e&a, 2e&a etc. You're going to build each tune together. The end result will be him reading music. Just don't make a big deal out of it. I teach a lot of "Older Guys" and have to trick them into the process as they all say they don't read music. I didn't either when I was born. I've learned since then and so can they.

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Old 11-13-2006, 06:16 PM   #5
Richard Mao
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

I've never had a student flat refuse to learn to read music...

several who didn't know how... and had difficulties whil learning

BUT in your case I might try the following...

Print whole note versions of really well known tunes... tunes already in your student's head

We wish you a merry Christmas
Good King Wenceslaus
Reveille (loA D F D loA, etc)
Amazing Grace...
Marine Corps Hymn

I could name a dozen more

separate the same note appearances with a ggrace or a tap... and start there... start with the tune sheet nameless on the top.... let him work it out

get him through these tunes as a reward in between normal scales and a lot of two note combos and arpeggios,

and I think your problem may be solved... when he can recognize the melody note and form it with his fingers and blow the note.

then you can start more complicated gracings...

depending on the student's age, mental flexibility, and finger agility... this could add one to three months in front of your normal tune/exercise beginner's progression.


If the student refuses to read music.... then how I would proceed .... is still teach scales... and ask him how he memorizes... can he then develop some unique to himself written memory/shorthand system... to allow him to play back to you what you showed him?

how would he teach another student, if he is an accomplished musician already? and adapt and adopt his methods... for use on him.

I have not yet exhausted the strategems...

Do you want to meet Bob again? Come and reminisce with me about him .. he lives in a corner of my heart...

Richard Mao, The Peking Piper ( PekingPiper@mao.org )
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Old 11-14-2006, 06:01 AM   #6
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

His words: " the proper way". Your words: " you're going to learn to read bagpipe music".
Use tapes to backup your teaching. He came to you for a reason.
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Old 11-14-2006, 03:29 PM   #7
Melissa Bautz
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

Here's my experience with this.

I took on a dyslexic student six years ago...reluctantly. I had just moved from a big city to a very small town. I was the only piper in the town and was interested in starting my own band. So I figured "Why not take on this student?"

I told him up front that I preferred that he try to learn to read music. He explained to me that he had tried and failed to read music many times before (with other instruments) but that he was an accomplished musician on those instruments. I soon verified that statement...not before I took him on however.

Right from the first lesson, this fellow merely watched my fingering and mimicked my playing. To the infinite degree of accuracy I'll have you know. Better than my music-reading students! This was merely his way of learning. And he was well-practiced at it. Within 8 months of instruction from me this individual played "Farewell to the Creeks" and "Come By the Hills" at my wedding on the pipes. And he did it well. Very impressive.

Was/is he normal? No!

Is it possible to learn pipes w.o. sheet music. You bet!

This guy currently plays light music and piobaireachd extremely well...at an accomplished Grade IV to Grade III level. He has a very nice, wide repertoire and has one of the steadiest sets of pipes I have ever heard.

He chooses not to compete for he has severe carpal tunnel syndrome and it "attacks" at random. So his technical abilities are unpredictable. However, on a good (Carpal) day this guy can play the socks off of any Gr. III player anywhere.

This individual is the one person I always enjoy doing performances with. He can lead, follow, deal with last minute mid-tune changes.

He has an incredible ear for tuning. Better than my own. I'll often defer to him when I'm tuning my "band". He's my right hand.

It can be done. In my student's situation, he took it upon himself to tell me what he needed to learn w.o. music. In my opinion, that is the only way to go.

That is, I think if the student is insisting on not learning the instrument in the way you are accustomed to teaching it, that s/he must tell you what s/he needs to "do it right".

Good luck
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Old 11-15-2006, 08:20 AM   #8
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

I think many instructors can over-emphasise the use of the music to the point where the actual aim of the exercise can be forgotten. One very good piper I know has severe dyslexia and literally can't interpret written music in any useful kind of way. On the other hand, he can pick up any tune on a single hearing and reproduce it cut for cut. Similar to Melissa's experience, a far more useful piper than someone with excellent sight reading skills. What I do with my pupils is work with music on a regular basis, but once a month or so I teach them a tune without music.

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Old 11-15-2006, 10:46 AM   #9
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

Point of clarification,....I was refering to people with no learning or physical disabilities. Big difference between "can't" and "won't".
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Old 11-15-2006, 12:59 PM   #10
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Default Re: Teaching students who can't read music

You took the words right out of my mouth, JRM.

There are two different issues here. And unless I read the original post incorrectly, it appeared that the 'student' was setting the conditions.

Thanks for your concise and clear summary. Michael
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