Issue 5: Silence is Golden

I never knew about how effective Silent Practise was until I started teaching beginner recorders.  I hit upon the idea of fingering the notes while singing the words, and the letter names, and the fingering numbers, over and over again, simply because the consequences of letting the children BLOW the notes was taking me to the edge of insanity.

However, this turns out to be a brilliant way of teaching the recorder.  The important thing is that the children should finger the notes correctly as they sing; eg as they sing “Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns, One-a-penny-two-a-penny Hot Cross Buns”, or sing “3 2 1, 3 2 1, 333322223 2 1” or sing “B A G, B A G, GGGGAAAAB A G”, they should be working their fingers as if they were actually playing the tune.  It’s not a bad idea to practise the tonguing too; “du du du, du du du, dududududududududu du du”.  This means that when you finally let them blow the recorders, there is a more than even chance that most of them will play the correct notes first time.

Of course, steps have to be taken to ensure the children don’t rebel at all this preparation. If there is a tricky fingering in a phrase, we might “take the notes for a walk”, and march round the class singing and fingering the notes a couple of times. Or I might pair up the children, and one fingers while the other watches to see if they get it right.

The next GIANT discovery was how effective silence is in learning phrases on the piano!  It becomes obvious after a moment’s thought; you want to know that you have made a mistake BEFORE you hear it – afterwards is too late.
So now, whenever there is a particularly fiddly bit of fingering to get sorted, I go over it several times, touching each note, but not allowing it to sound. It is a weird sensation, but what happens is that you are focussing on the FEEL of the phrase, and not the SOUND of the phrase.  Then, when you play “for real”, you will be able to feel if you are about to play a wrong note before it happens, rather than hear that you have played a wrong note after it happened.  I have also found Silent Practise to be useful when teaching very apprehensive pupils; somehow the whole process of learning is much less threatening when no-one can hear your mistakes.

I now use Silent Practise as a teaching tool for every instrument I teach; strings, wind, keyboard and even voice, as miming parts of the song lets you focus on phrasing and breath control without involving the challenge of pitch.

I do realise that all you teachers out there may well have been using this teaching technique for years, and are now gasping in amazement that it has taken me so long to get on board. However, I have taken the brave step of risking ridicule for the sake of those teachers who haven’t discovered the relief of quieter music lessons.  Especially when it is time for three consecutive classes of beginner recorders at the end of a long, long week.

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