I had a “Talking Math with Other People’s Kids” moment back in October that I wanted to blog about, so now is as good a time as any to pull that one out of the drafts folder.
My boyfriend’s niece and nephew have recently fallen in love with Star Wars, which, frankly, makes all of us happy. So while at the BF’s parents’ house when they were there, I decided to entertain them by playing the Star Wars theme on the piano. His nephew, Matthew (age 6), liked it and wanted to know how to play it. I thought about how I would describe it to him, so I did the following.
“Okay, this key here, I’m gonna call that key #1. So the one next to it is key #2, and so on. So, I’ll write down some numbers and you can know which keys to press.” And I wrote “1 5 4 3 2 8 5 4 3 2 8 5 4 3 4 1. (Then repeat)” He practiced it a few times until he got it, and we were all impressed. But then he wanted to do the next part, which dips into the octave below middle C. So I saw an opportunity.
“Well, Matthew, the next key we have to hit is this one, what should we call it?”
He told me I should call it 9, with the next notes being 10 and 11, since we already did up to 8. I asked him if he thought that might be confusing. “If I were reading it, I would think the 9 should be the one right after 8.” He agreed, so then he said we should call them letters, like a, b, c.
“Well, okay, Matthew, we could do that, but then what would you call this key [the one to the left of “A”]?”
After a moment’s thought, “D.”
“But isn’t that confusing again? Now everything’s out of order.” He agreed again, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. I made the following suggestion:
That way if we need to add more notes that go down, we can just use more letters, and if we need to add notes that go up, we can use more numbers. He thought this was a good idea, and so we moved on to playing the rest of the tune.
I admit I was thinking of a specific post I had read not long before, which I thought was a TMWYK post but now I can’t find it, where the child invents numbers smaller than 0 using *1, *2, *3, etc. That was my intention with that conversation with Matthew, but if I’ve learned anything from reading all the TMWYK posts, it’s that you don’t push it if the kid isn’t going their themselves. We had to come up with some sort of solution so we could keep playing the song, but once we got something workable, we didn’t need to keep going to talk about the whole negative number system. At the time Kathryn Freed asked me if there was a 0 key, which I said there wasn’t and so the divide between the two types of keys was a little awkward, but it worked out.
In the months since, Matthew has been taking piano lessons and learning to read actual music instead of my cockamamie scheme, which is for the best. He’s pretty good at it, too.