Get Close to the System

I’ve been talking a lot about research lately, and how it’s helped me understand my teaching practice in a bigger context. But as Dylan William says–and I agree–teachers should “be seeking to improve their practice through a process of ‘disciplined inquiry’.”  I also like that he says, “Educational research can only tell us what was, not what might be.”

The closer I’ve gotten to teaching English as a system, the better results I get in working with students.

Let me tell you about another system I learned and how it transformed me.

When I was a little girl my parents took me for piano lessons. My teacher taught me Every Good Boy Does FIne, Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart, and FACE. I could read music!  Or so I thought.


I picked up piano again as an adult. My new teacher Lisa took me on a different path. First, she taught me the key signatures by pointing out a pattern. Start on any C (any white key to the direct left of two black keys) and follow the pattern of whole and half notes: WWHWWWH (a half step on a keyboard is the very next (contiguous) key with no black or white key in between). If you try it and didn’t play any black keys you’ve played a C major scale.


You’re right: there are no sharps or flats in the key of C major and it works no matter which note you start on, as long as you follow the same pattern (WWHWWWH). Start on any note and follow the same pattern. If you start on F, for example, you will end up playing a scale with one black key, a B flat. Yup, the F major scale has only one flat and that would be B.

There’s only one middle C and the two staffs work together as one system. A line to a space or a space to a line is one note. Look below and you can figure out any note. Add a couple of extra landmarks and you’ve got this down.

face 3


Holy burrito! Lisa showed me how the system of music notation works. Holly the little girl could read music only if she already knew the tune. Now, as an adult with some infrastructure under my belt, the whole world was my song. My sight reading improved and my ability to memorize complex pieces of music was transformed.

In a word: systems.

4 Comments on “Get Close to the System”

  1. Pingback: Phonics Needs Etymology, Too! | Ravinia Reading

  2. I’m a piano teacher who stumbled across your blog via the Learning Scientists. I’m always looking for better ways to teach and help my students learn. The research in music education is far behind other academic subjects, so I find myself drawn to reading about teaching language, since it’s the closest analogue to teaching music reading.

    So of course, I am happy to find that you have drawn similar conclusions in your post. Teaching music reading seems to be much easier when you use Landmarks, intervals, and pattern recognition. I just wish there was research that demonstrated this. There are very few teachers like myself and your teacher Lisa who teach music reading this way. We are viewed as heretical by the piano teacher community.

    • Well that is just depressing! I now know that I was very lucky to have found Lisa. She gave me a true gift. So that’s heretical, huh? Just like my aiming to teach kids real stuff instead of made up rules with exceptions is heretical. I take so much grief for this, just as I took grief for teaching phonics so long ago. But I wouldn’t change what I do for all the money in the world.

      • I absolutely agree! Since I started teaching music reading this way, all of my students are solid music readers – even the ones with diagnosed English-reading disabilities. I’m convinced it’s the right way to teach music reading!

        Lisa did give you a wonderful gift. I hope you continue to enjoy it!

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