How to Teach Music in China: No Notes

I expected another horrifying singing rehearsal today with the cast of Pippin, and I got my “want-to-tear-my-hair-out” quota of half hour in. But then Liu Da Wei, the music director, went to work on the whiteboard. He mapped out the song the chorus was to learn in the Chinese simple notation. It involves writing scale degrees in beat for beat, bar by bar. It eliminates the complications of key signatures by putting everything on a sliding scale.

What happened next was amazing. Almost everyone in the room simply just read (for the most part) what was on the board. No guessing for notes or trying to listen for the interval. They just knew the notation. One boy even raised his hand and corrected Mr. Liu on a rhythm mystake on the board. Sometimes I could bearly understand what the rhythm markings in the system were.

Later, a student explained to me that most students learned the simple notation in primary school. I can finally understand why it’s so hard to transfer the music program at this school to western notation. Western notation involves key signatures and specified pitches all of which are irrelavent in the simple system. What I do not quite understand yet is how instrumentalists at the school learn on the simple system. Singers are natural-born transposers because you don’t need to change the fingering to change the scale; there are no fingers. Instrumentalists must change the fingering with different scales. They must learn scales by rote memory and simply have a named starting pitch.

Wow, so this is how you teach music in China.