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The Grand Staff break down for PARENTS

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Today we’re breaking down the elements of the Grand Staff so you know what you're looking at when your child asks you for help during at-home practice.

My oldest son just started reading notes on the Grand Staff and some things he is picking up super quickly and other things he finds confusing. Just last year I remember him being surprised to see me reading “dots on the page” while I played.

I had sat down for a few minutes to play one of my favorite pieces, Claire de Lune by Debussy, while my kids were playing in the other room. I was trying to just take a mental break from all of the “mom…I need this…” moments that seemed to be non-stop with an 8-week old baby and two busy boys who were home from school (again🤪).

Caleb walked in and asked if I was using the music to help me play. He hadn’t started online lessons with Ms Lani yet, and I hadn’t formally introduced note reading to him. We were going through a pre-reading book, working on making different kinds of sounds on the piano, hand posture, finger numbers, pentascales and then I let him use his ears to play melodies from familiar tunes.

Even though he had watched me play from music for years, this was the first time he had specifically asked me about using the music in front of me.

I told him, “Yes, buddy, I’m reading the music.” His eyes got super big as he looked at all of the dots on the page and said, “You’re reading the music?!? But there are no words.” I briefly explained that music is it’s own language, and the dotes are notes that tell me where to put my fingers, to which he replied “cool” in a semi-interested voice and then ran off to continue playing with his brother 😅.

Reading music can be really complicated, overwhelming and over the years I have watched my students simply shut down mentally when they come across something that their minds cannot fully grasp. However, when you break it down into little pieces, over time reading music starts to make sense.

BUT while students are still learning, sometimes they need a little support when they start reading on the Grand Staff. I often find my son needs my help to find his starting position for the first day or two after getting a new song to practice.

So…what do you do as a parent if you don’t read music? How can you help your child get started?

Today we’re breaking down the elements of the Grand Staff so you know what you're looking at when your child asks you for help.

The Grand Staff is made up of 2, 5-lined staffs and looks like this:

  • The top staff with the curly looking G is the Treble Clef. It is used to write pitches from Middle C and higher. We use our Right Hand when reading the top staff.

  • The bottom staff is actually supposed to be shaped like an F (squint and imagine the two dots are lines).This is the Bass Clef. It is used to write pitches from Middle C and lower. We use our Left Hand when reading the bottom staff.

The Bracket joining the two staffs (it looks like the curved part of a bow and arrow) tells us that these two staffs MOVE TOGETHER. We don't read the Treble clef first and then read the Bass clef. The notes in the Treble clef that line up in a vertical line with notes in the Bass clef get played at the same time using both hands.

The last thing we're going to talk about today is the concept that every note on the Grand Staff has ONE corresponding pitch on the piano. The musical alphabet consists of 7 repeating notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Even though we have 8 C's on the piano, Middle C only has 1 spot on the piano.

Middle C is C4 on the piano. That means it is the 4th C from the bottom of the piano.

When a student (or my son) asks "Where do my hands go for this song?" it shows me that this "one spot for each pitch" concept is still kind of fuzzy, and that's normal at first!

I like to use Middle C as a guide for finding their hands' spot on the piano. It is normally the first white note on the piano they learn to identify regularly when searching for visual patterns, and it is one of the first notes they learn to read on the Grand Staff. Take a good look at that Middle C in the picture above. You want to memorize that one!

I never give my students their hand position, and parents, you shouldn't either. I ask them questions about where they think their hand should go based off of the first notes on the music.

First, I ask them if the first note in the Treble is above or below Middle C. Then I will ask them if it is close to or far away from Middle C. Normally by this point they are starting to remember where their right hand belongs (and in beginner music books we normally write the name of the first note into their music and the finger number they should place on that note, so parents, look for handwritten comments on the book.)

Then I ask my students the same questions about the first note in the Bass Clef until they find their left hand position.

It normally takes several weeks of doing this for new songs before finding their hand position becomes very natural.

I want to draw your attention to a helpful resource I found from a piano teacher friend I met on Instagram a few years ago. Tara Boykin @cascademethod made a resource called "NoteMatch". It is a magnetic guide that stretches out the Grand Staff to sit directly behind the black notes on the piano. This is a great visual tool to help students make the connection between the lines and spaces on the Grand Staff and the actual notes on the piano.

One final thing.

Never forget to reach out to your child’s teacher if you are stuck during practice. We teachers would MUCH rather send a screenshot text message or text a quick video reminder to help our students then have them not practice all week long because they don’t know how to begin!

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