Marking Key Signature Notes

Don’t Do It!

After an entire year of scratching my head in confusion and wondering why so many of my students were having problems with key signatures (all of which were students at the same school), I finally realized it was because of the very bad habit of marking key signature notes in their music. This is something you need to stop doing RIGHT NOW!!!!

Are you one of those students who can barely see the music through the circles and penciled flats or sharps?

Does your music look like this?:


Or like this?:


Don’t do this anymore!!!!”

This is a VERY bad habit.

It wouldn’t be SO bad if it actually worked. But it doesn’t. You mark these notes because it reminds you which notes are in the key signature, right? Well then, why do you still keep playing them wrong? (I haven’t met a player yet who marked key signature notes and didn’t play wrong notes anyway). Face it. This kind of marking has no positive benefits and the problems it causes are severe.

Before we talk about the negative effects of marking your music this way, let’s take a moment to discuss how marking should work. In general, you should mark ONLY the following:

Information not written into the music. For example; if the teacher tells you the notes should be staccato and staccatos are not written, then you should write them on the part. If the band director tells you to crescendo in a place where no crescendo is written, then you mark it into the part.

Misprints. If you learn that the music has errors, you should correct those errors on your part.

Conductor Notes. If the conductor tells you to do something at a certain point in the music, then you should mark it into the part. Maybe he wants you to play a note more sharp or flat. Maybe he wants you to watch him. Those things should be written into
your part.

And NEVER the following:

Do NOT mark things that are already written because it delays the day you actually learn how to read the music.

Do NOT mark fingerings unless they are alternative fingerings.

Do not circle mistakes! Consider the psychology of circled mistakes. You’re in a competition and the music on your stand has twenty reminders of all the parts where you messed up. How much sense does that make?

Yes, it is important to mark trouble spots so you know what to work on. This is different from what most of you do though. Most of you circle mistakes to remind you to “try harder” the next time you play it. Bad!!!! The only time you should mark a mistake is when you plan to return to it later to fix it. When you’ve practiced it enough to play it correctly, you don’t need a reminder to “try harder” anymore, so it’s time to erase the mark.

But what about key signature notes? Why shouldn’t you mark them?

Because, remembering the key as your eye travels across the page is a skill which needs to be developed over time. It’s a short term memory skill and by marking the key signature notes into your music, you put off the day when you develop this skill.

Unfortunately, it’s a badly needed skill which is never effectively sidestepped with such shortcuts. Our minds do not comprehend music on a note by note basis. We think in terms of groups of notes and one of the most basic concepts behind these note groupings is the concept of key signatures.

That’s why marking individual notes doesn’t work. It merely causes you to avoid learning to recognize note groupings. It puts off the day you will learn the short term memory skill of remembering what key you’re in.

As a professional player, I often read music that only has the key written ONCE, on the first staff of each page. So this is a big deal. It’s part of learning how to read music.

The prescribed cure for this problem is to spend lots of time playing the Tonalization Studies in the Daily Routines book (doing them in many different keys) and NEVER marking your music this way again.