Blog | Sep 25

Why I Value Note-naming and “Fingerboard Geography”

Cello and string music lessons


Why I Value Note-naming and “Fingerboard Geography”, an Aspect of Musical Literacy
By Katherine Baird

One aspect of developing string students’ musical understanding is the ability to name notes on the instrument and understand “fingerboard geography”. Knowing all the notes and where they “live” makes reading music and shifting so much easier.

Just like learning to read one’s native language, we learn the names of the letters in the alphabet (also in our musical alphabet: A-B-C-D-E-F-G); we learn how to sound them out individually (sing them); we learn how to sound them out when they are connected in various permutations (in music lessons, what we call sight-read).

As an instrument, the piano visually makes much more sense right away than a stringed instrument, as all the notes are laid out low to high, left to right. With strings it’s not so straightforward. Add to that, on the cello and string bass, the farther “south” the notes go (as our hand moves ‘lower’ towards the floor) the higher they sound, which is utterly counterintuitive.

I’ve learned from my own cello-teaching experience that often string teachers (I include myself here; in my earlier teaching years I was guilty as charged) teach how to connect the finger number, and the string on which said finger falls with the dot on the musical staff, but not necessarily have the student know that dot is an A, and (on the cello) that first finger on the G string (as well as 3rd finger in fourth position on the C string) is that same note. There are several perspectives from which music-readers need to grasp the notation, and connect it with the kinesthetic and aural sensation. Another way to think of it is that we need to understand note-reading in various contexts. It’s kind of like a kindergartner who sees his school teacher at the grocery store and isn’t sure whether that’s their teacher, because it’s out of context. “My teacher is at the grocery store! Wait, what??”

So much left hand (finger) work on a stringed instrument is muscle memory, and connecting it to the ear and body by way of interval understanding (“B-D above is a minor third; D-G above is a perfect fifth. This is how it feels and sounds to play these distances”) makes maneuvering around the instrument easier and more enjoyable. Conversely, not knowing or understanding the relationships of notes and distances can really hold students back in their music lessons.

How do we start this process early, even before the student learns formal “note-reading”? I’ll share my process. I am curious what other teachers do!

From the earliest music lessons, we sing the open string names. As soon as I show a student how to put fingers down, even one finger, I tell them, “we call that ‘B’” and we sing the pitch with the letter name.

Once they are playing with fingers, we name them using their proper name. I also use the finger name (“1”, or “3”) only to help them connect and reinforce the alphabet letter with the finger number, but I avoid singing or saying “4-4-3-3-1-1-D” in place of letter names.
When students begin note-reading, and continuing on as they learn tenor and treble clefs (cellists have to read three clefs) I insist that students also say the note names (singing is even better, even if they need support from me, or [as a Suzuki teacher] the parent/home teacher, or a parent/home teacher playing along on keyboard, if they can).

Usually around Level 2 or 3 of Suzuki cello I introduce Rick Mooney’s Position Pieces for Cello, Vol. 1. This book is divided into specific positions of the cello fingerboard with a “geography quiz” in each section for students to identify and write down letter names and the fingers that play them depending on the position. I find I have to constantly reinforce this learning by quizzing students briefly and regularly at lessons or group classes. Sometimes I’ll have them fill in a blank cello fingerboard on paper. The visual and kinesthetic help vary the brain work. Flashcards are another tool for reviewing fingerboard geography.

Once students are accustomed to this kind of work it is easy to add a little bit to each music lesson. When they play a scale, ask them to “say and play”. When they sight-read ask them to name the notes in a phrase. Ask them what position one of the measures is in, and ask them what are the intervals from note to note in a particular phrase. These are all simple ways to maintain skill-building in fingerboard geography and understanding the relationships of notes.

As always, I am interested to hear others’ ideas for helping with this kind of understanding.

Happy practicing!


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