Teaching Notereading

After the child can readily identify line notes and space notes and knows what a step and skip is, it's time to read "real music." Here's how I teach it. You may wish to read the linked file, which also discusses how to teach steps and skips, before continuing with this file.

Now arrange line and space notes on a clefless staff, using only steps. Write no more than 12 notes. This called a "snake song" because it looks like a snake. A snake song may be played with both hands, one hand, the nose, or any other sort of fingering the student wishes to use. Do not mention "strange" fingering at all! The idea here is note-reading only! Don't distract the student with any other concern.

Ask the parent to come observe so this may be duplicated at home exactly as you are doing it at the lesson.

With the "vee" between the index and third fingers, isolate the first two noteheads. Now we are at the wall! Ask the student to play any white note. (If it's a low or high one, just scoot over on the bench so the student can reach it. Don't suggest he choose "a middle note;" nothing negative here.) Point to the first note and say, "Here is the note you just played." Move your pencil point (this is better than a finger because it's got an unambiguous tip). "Here is the note we're going to." Move your pencil back and forth slowly from note to note. "Is this note [your pencil point comes to rest on the second note] above or below the note where you are [pencil point goes here and then back to the destination note]." Don't move the pencil point quickly; take your time so the student's eyes can follow while her brain is also working at absorbing what you just said.

We hope the student will be able to recognize that it is a step.

If not, prompt her: "Is this a step up or a step down?" If the answer is incorrect, betray no annoyance or disappointment. It's ok. You've laid a good foundation, and this child -will- be able to learn this concept. Move the pencil only from left to right (picking up the pencil point after the second note is reached and going back to the first notehead) and say, "Is this note [second one] above or below this note [first one]." The discussion continues with a remark that "to get to a higher note, you need to move -up-, so this is a step up." Write one snake song for each day of practice and ask the parent to do just one daily with the child. This will be tough hoeing at the beginning, so just one is plenty! At the lesson, select just one to "spot check."

To make the snake songs more complex, add skips. Then add repeated notes. Last, add notes on leger lines above and below the staff, but only a space note and a line note above and below; that's all you'll need for now. These placements correspond to small B and Middle C; and Middle C and one-line D. (I teach Middle C position, and these remarks are predicated on that.)

The snake songs usually are mastered in one or two weeks for most students, but perhaps longer with students who have had difficulty seeing the difference between line and space notes. Remember that things may still be "swirling around" for this sort of student), and lines and spaces still may be a bit of a jumble. No matter. Be patient. No one has failed to master this!

Now we move to "worm songs." You guessed it: shorter than snake songs. The catch here, though, is that while the student may choose the starting [white] note, she must use the hand and finger designated, such as LH 4. You must write these songs with precision and check them carefully for errors: the range must lie exactly within the five-finger span. Mention this to the child and also add that there will "plenty of fingers" to play the song and that when there is a step she should use the adjacent finger and skip a finger if the notes read a skip.

Use the "vee" of your fingers technique described above to isolate the notes of interest. Make the first couple of worm songs easy - - no repeated notes, no notes outside the staff - - to ensure instant success. Write 6-8 notes maximum. These songs are more difficult; compensate by making them shorter. You don't want your student to give up in fatigue! If the songs are this length, write two a day and let the parent call the shots if he think the child cannot do two every day.

After worm songs, in my studio, we move to the grand staff with Middle C-only songs, with Middle C written exactly mid-way between the two staves so it looks exactly the same. Now's the time to introduce stems (stem up = RH; stem down = LH) -and- to introduce the fundamentals of rhythmic steadiness by tapping and saying "one" with each note the student plays. I also write 1 in blue pencil below each note as further reinforcement. (I save regular pencil marks for other notations on the music; counting is always blue, and it's always between the staves.)

Much praise because this is *real* music notation "just like all musicians read! Now you can read music, too!" I ask the parent ahead of time if he will allow the child to pick the dinner menu or receive a special treat (chocolate?!) in celebration of this major milestone. And then announce this "prize" to the student.

Notice that the progression in notereading has been from free choice to specificity. That's the way notation is: as soon as we have the clef, we no longer are allowed to select our starting note. The clefs work as "street signs" that name each line and space. (For some teen and adult students of an abstract bent, you might mention C clefs, and even treble and bass clefs which move around and why.)

The next step is to add small B, which is the note just below Middle C. At this time, move the Middle C into normal position. ("We're going to move Middle C near the staff because it's easier to see this way.") The next new note is small A; I add another bass clef note because most people have more difficulty readying bass clef. Let's start with that one! As you have guessed, one-line D above Middle C is next. I usually pause here for a few songs before introducing one-line E to make sure learning is solid.

And now a fervent plea:

Skip over songs in the method book that have eighth-notes in them!

No way is any beginner student (even an adult) ready for eighth-notes!! Please! I beg you!


You also may be interested in reading the questions and answers in the Pedagogy Q&A section concerning prolonged difficulty in learning to read notation and so-called mirror reading. Also see my file on teaching rests.

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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