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Amanda Grow

Every Good Boy Does Fail?

September 23, 2009 at 3:06 AM

My earliest memories of learning to read music in school involve faces and boys. I remember the chalk musical staff, the teacher writing the letters, and her voice explaining the classic "every good boy does fine" and "FACE". Unfortunately it never really seemed to stick with me - I just couldn't seem to make the connection between what I had memorized and practical application. I could write EGBDF/FACE, but put a single unlabled note on the lines and ask me which one it was, and I had to think really hard before I came up with an answer. And don't even get me started on my failure rate on ledger lines. If I sat and concentrated I could slowly puzzle it out, but not in a way that I could tell you what the melody was.

It was frustrating and I gravitated towards playing by ear instead. I would revert to ear play because it was just faster for me to learn a song than picking over the heiroglyphical notes and symbols on a staff. Now I figure rather than regretting that I can't read it, I'll do something about it and start fresh trying to learn it. Last night I had a major break through in progress, and to my great surprise it came from scrapping what I had previously been taught about reading music over the years.

I recently acquired a book "violin for dummies"...mostly because I've read several of their other books like "photoshop for dummies" "latin for dummies" and found them to be fairly well written and useful as a supplement. When I turned to the section on reading music, sure enough, there it was again. Every good boy does fine. FACE. I see not a lot had changed about learning to read music from when I was a little kid.

I spent a couple nights reading through this chapter, trying to memorize things, and feeling more confident with it. A few days went by and I tried to give myself a little quiz. 1 out of 5. That was my success rate. It was like I had learned nothing at all. I decided that there had to be something about this method that wasn't clicking with me, so I needed a new method.

I don't even know how I noticed it, but I found the issue with the EGBDF/FACE method...for me. Whenever I looked at the staff, my eye was always looking at the top line and trying to read down, rather than from the bottom up. For me, it felt like what an eastern language reader must go through trying to convert to western languages... you're used to reading right to left, but here we read left to right. So apparently a lot of musicians read from bottom to top, and I read from top to bottom. So I scrapped every boy and face, and decided to fill in with my own patterns. I started with the lines.... I added 2 ledger lines top and bottom just to be on the safe side (because that was another problem was if the note was outside the staff itself, I couldn't tell what the hell it was at all). It's not the prettiest but I ended up with:

Chef's Advice Fine Dining Beats Good Eating Chef's Advice

Then I switched to spaces:

Dogs Bite Guests Even Cats Attack Friends Dogs Bite Guests

That second one I had to rework a couple times. At first I tried "Every cat attracts fleas" which worked pretty well...except for the "every" part. I was too prone to think of the synonym "all" and end up with ACAF instead of ECAF.

I also noticed that when listed straight down, the repeating pattern of the letters was "bagfedc" which I broke out in my brain to be "bag fed c" - I used this one less, but it was there as a reminder.

So the next night I give myself the same quiz where I had previously scored 1 out of 5 correct. This time I scored 78 out of 78. What a difference! I even noticed that not only do I get them all right, I get them probably 5x faster than when I was trying to use  the every boy/face method. It's amazing how such a subtle change has really turned around my progress on reading music. I don't think it means that the traditional boy/face method is "wrong"...just that not all teaching methods work for every person. I wish I had the wisdom in my youth to think about switching up my lesson methods, but alas that's something that comes only with age and experience to know that a majority of school is not to teach you things, it's to teach you how to learn. But maybe another struggling student or teacher might read this and maybe it will inspire them to find their own way of making a lesson make more sense. Every Good Beginner Deserves Fortune.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 23, 2009 at 12:18 PM

That's great that you found a system that works for you.  I have my students write out little songs, with the idea that if you write the note on the staff yourself, it will stick.  There are many free staff paper sites, and I use this one:

I don't use FACE and EGBDF, but start the students with open strings tunes, and progress to one string tunes, for example, a melody using D string notes, or a melody using A string notes, etc.  We all have our own methods, and whatever works...Good luck!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 23, 2009 at 2:04 PM

 I like your analysis, and especially how you were able to realize that going from the top down rather than the bottom up worked better for you.  

Learning to read other clefs (bass, alto for viola) seems to have helped me a little bit in making my brain more flexible.  I find that knowing where the open strings are and just what they look like by sight gives me a good baseline, whatever clef I'm in.  And for some reason, "All Cows Eat Grass", which is spaces, bottom up, for bass clef, always stayed with me--much more than FACE.

Have you come up with a good system for ledger lines?  I'm still terrible at reading ledger lines above a high G or thereabouts.  Top down, bottom up, it doesn't seem to matter.  And there are no open strings to help.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 23, 2009 at 5:26 PM

lol the english speaking people have all kind of humoristic ways to learn!!!  


From Man Wong
Posted on September 24, 2009 at 10:49 AM

Yeah, every good boy and FACE doesn't really work for me in practice either -- well, one of the kids' music teachers actually made it "does every good boy do fine always?" and "D FACE G" to help out w/ the notes above and below the staff.  Fine for identifying letter names when I'm being "quizzed", but not really for actual music reading.

I'm basically just an adult beginner though -- although I know every good boy and FACE from grade school -- but I find Karen's approach of simply recognizing where the open strings are to help a lot in actual practice (for both violin and viola).  Of course, that only works for playing one of these stringed instruments -- and I'm not sure how well it's gonna work once I need to shift regularly in my playing.

RE: the analogy of shifting from eastern to western languages, yeah, I often wonder if that's not why I feel slightly dislexic (and am such a slow reader).  I lived in Hong Kong and had traditional (Cantonese) Chinese -- w/ none of the pin-yin stuff -- as my native language during my formative childhood years.  To this day I still tend to flip thru magazines and such from right to left, instead of left to right. :-p  Not too sure whether the same applies to music reading though -- it's just all so very different from other languages and is yet logical enough w/in itself w/ its own set of rules and patterns that can be recongized.  Learning music theory and to read music seem more like learning some new type of math or similar, which may be part of the reason why it's good for the kids' development process beyond music itself...



From Joan Coy
Posted on September 24, 2009 at 3:25 PM

I'm an adult beginner and every good boy and FACE worked like a charm for me. I picked up note reading very fast. I'm a computer programmer, and I suspect having the ability to read and write code gave me a leg up on note reading.

From Dimitri Adamou
Posted on September 24, 2009 at 9:43 PM

Joan, same here [I am a coder to]. It took me less than a month to pick up how to do basic  reading using

'Every good boy deserves fruit always'

and just FACE

The trouble now is to read them like intervals

From Joan Coy
Posted on September 24, 2009 at 10:40 PM

Dimitri, it was exactly the same for me. Took me under a month to pick it up. It has to be the coding experience that makes it easy for us.

From Amanda Grow
Posted on September 25, 2009 at 12:26 AM

Re: Karen - With the ledger lines I just include those in the mix. The method I use is kind of... unorthodox... but I actually hand-made a staff, with about 2 ledger lines top and bottom, in a photoshop document. Then I add more image layers and on each layer I make a note shape with the letter in the middle of it. I can display/hide the layers on the fly. As I memorize, I will go through and display various patterns by hiding/displaying the different layers. They stack straight up and down rather than having the notes spaced out stair style (as many lesson books seem to do. I found spreading it out  like that only muddled me). If I turn them ALL on it's illegible, but I named all the layers after the note so I can still see what the raw order is (the bagfedcbagfedc pattern).

Re: Man - I've had several chinese and arabic friends who have mentioned similar dyslexic feelings when trying to switch between reading multiple languages :)

Re: Dimitri & Joan - that's very interesting that the coding seemed to give you a leg up on it. They say that when you learn a language, learning more there after becomes easier, and I'd say that's true for all sorts of languages


From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 27, 2009 at 7:59 PM

Does it help at all to think of ABCDEFG, ABCDEFG....?

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