Affirmative Action for the Piano

One takeaway from my recent experience in a Montessori school was the evident glee with which the children attacked a pentatonic balafon brought in by one of the teachers, contrasting with their apparent lack of interest in the expensive chromatic set of bells sitting on a nearby shelf.


You can buy the one in the photo on Woodbrass for 160 euros, or for a fraction of that sum next time you visit Mali.

Naturally I wondered if the kids’ enthusiasm had something to do with the charm of the pentatonic scale. As my mother, who was a classical pianist, used to put it, “you can never sound wrong in the pentatonic scale.” She thought Debussy had invented it.

Many of you will have seen Bobby McFerrin “playing the audience” in this video, where they end up singing up the pentatonic scale without prompting:

This may be the wisdom behind an original beginner’s piano method I came across recently. Written by brilliant French jazz pianist Phil Walter it starts with the black notes – which as you all know, form a pentatonic scale. I hope to collaborate with him one day in preparing an English version.

Conventional teachers might be put off by seeing staves with five and six flats on the opening pages of a piano method. But when you think about it, isn’t it better to start with the scale that “has no wrong notes in it” and that furthermore is already marked out for you on the keyboard? And to think some kids used to find the black notes intimidating!

Phil has very elegantly thought out his approach, which stays in 4/4 and introduces pedal and walking basses to develop rhythmic sense and hand co-ordination. The transition to white notes is very painless when it comes.

Looking through his expertly illustrated book, with keyboard diagrams for fingerings, I was reminded of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s introduction to his song Blacknuss, his ironic contribution to musical affirmative action:

“Now we’re gathered here in the Universe at this time , this particular time, to listen to the 36 black notes of the piano, There’s 36 black notes and 52 white notes, We don’t need to eliminate nothin’, but we’re gonna just hear the black notes at this time, if you don’t mind. Blacknuss. B-L-A-C-K-N-U-S-S.” 

So if there are no wrong notes in the pentatonic scale produced by the black notes, does that mean the wrong notes must all be white? Well, maybe, but that’s not the same as saying that all white notes must be wrong!

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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