learning to read notes using something other than flashcards????

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My daughter is halfway through her second year of piano. She is not learning the notes. She ends up struggling through a song with me after her piano teacher leaves. From then on, she mostly plays by ear and is lost if she can't figure out how it sounds. We are both frustrated.

Is there any method for learning notes other than flashcards. They have obviously not worked for me. I'm wondering about any stories that are made to introduce the notes or any other teaching tips for non visual learners.

Thanks so much.

-- Christine (kcharlander@peoplepc.com), February 16, 2003


I just working five months ago with a student whose teacher had labeled almost all of the note names in the child's pieces. So the minute I looked at her book I realized we had to work on note recognition. The 9 yr. old had taken lessons about two years and could play some pieces fairly well by memory. But her ability to actually read was abysmal. So we began working together five months ago. I reviewed her on the helper sentences (ex. "Every Good Bird Does Fly", etc.)which I teach as "The Secret Code of Music." This sounds somewhat like a detective type thing. Some of my students keep their special "Secret Code of Music" notecard with them at the piano as a helper.I actually had her write the sentences in herself on a paper with a large staff. Then I did make a set of note flashcards in Middle C and C Position. That way she only had to study 12 notes. Each week for several weeks I had her practice the flashcards 5xs a day at home and then we worked on them at every lesson. I also gave her written work to do that required her to write in note names below notes and also to draw notes above already filled-in note names. She did the written work each day at home also. I continue to keep this child working with flashcards and written work because she still wants to use her memory first and note recognition skills second. I've also switched her into a Level 2 FJH book (she was in the Alfred Series). The FJH book seems to be more difficult for her to memorize, not as many repetitive patterns. I also have started a Lending Library of books that I send home with students free of charge. I may give them 3-5 songs to practice during a week but only ask them to practice them 4xs or less. That way they're not getting as much repetition and aren't as likely to memorize their songs. Students like this young girl are actually gifted because they can "hear" the music well enough to memorize it. I just have to outsmart them and do so by giving them lots and lots of music that is actually below the level they are accustomed to playing. I'm going to try loaning children these fun supplementary books for only 1 week because then they would have to sight-read their way through the entire book that week. I'm using the FJH books that have hymns, folksongs, popular songs, etc. in this way. I have a beginner who started with me 5 months ago. She has problems with eye-hand coordination and immediately started memorizing her pieces. So I had to remind her to look at each note (I still remind her sometimes) and actually see it. I immediately made her a set of flashcards to study of just the few notes she needed to know. I told her mother not to help the child! My comment was "She needs to learn to dig these notes out herself. So don't tell or show her!" She's coming along and is improving. Also I have started giving her lots of music to practice. If a child only has 1 or 2 pieces they often can easily master them. I just give them lots and lots of fun music and eventually most of them become fluent sight-readers. This child has not been introduced yet to "The Secret Code of Music" because she is still playing in Middle C position or something close to Middle C position. I think it just confuses the younger students to give them the names of all the lines and spaces. I just have them study their pictures and say outloud their locations. For ex. Middle C is below the treble staff and has a line (you can call it an "arrow" for fun) shooting thru it. D is down below! Down starts with a D. That's easy to remember! E is stamped on the first line every time. F is fine in the first space. G is giddy on line number 2. Sometimes I'll sing these descriptive phrases to the kids and have them sing them back. I'm just trying to find another way to get the information to sink in. One of my crazier ideas involves having students play music forward and backwards. This works well with single-note pieces and really wrecks the memorization process on the backwards pass! Plus they find it really whacky and that makes them laugh and enjoy the process more. Other things I have done with students involve having them stretch strings across the floor and tape them down at each end. This should make a staff about 2 feet tall and maybe 3-4 ft. long. One time I had my 7 yr. old daughter lay down on the floor in the shape of a treble clef! Then my student threw a beanbag into the staff and then identified the line or space name that it landed on. Then my daughter became a bass clef on the floor and the beanbag toss began again. It was so much fun that my daughter wanted the 18 yr. old 250 lb. student to become the treble and bass clefs so she could throw the beanbag. But the student didn't think he wanted to be a clef! I've also had students in groups and we have made human staffs using the length of the body for the lines. Then a human clef comes and lays down and the other students carefully walk across the spaces while naming them. For the lines I had students touch the feet of the human lines as they moved across the staff. Then we change places. The kids loved this. One day I also used a group of choral students to make a vertical staff. The bottom line lay on the floor on their side. (This bottom line could have their legs passing between the legs of the next line.) The second line stretched two arms in above the student on the floor. And so on. We saved the tallest kid for last. Then I had other students become notes moving around on the staff and a few others got to identify the notes. It was a bit unwieldy but they loved it and wanted to do it over and over! One of the most effective ideas I have come up with is using the human hand to represent the staff. We do have five fingers! So I simply point in the spaces between the fingers and teach them F-A-C-E, I point at the fingers and we practice the sentences. I use the right hand to teach the treble clef and the left hand to teach the bass clef. They enjoy it and I tell them you can practice your line and space names any time of day or night because you take your hands everywhere you go! Also some ADD kids may have the problem that a young boy (diagnosed autistic) had early on. He wanted to play music without having to read the notes! He just didn't want to slow down and look at the notes and was getting very frustrated and upset at that point! He wanted to fast forward and skip the practice part. So I had a brainstorm that particular day. I told him, "Imagine you are a pirate and this is your spyglass". (I looked around to find something to turn into a spyglass. The best I could come up with was taking a 3" paper square, folding it in half, and tearing out a ragged circular hole in the middle.) Then I said, "This paper in front of you has all the directions to the secret treasure and you need to read all of the directions to get to the treasure." So I held the paper over the note just revealing one note to him at a time. He made it to the end of that short beginner's piece. I said, "Let's do it again." Then I said "Oh, no. The spyglass has been lost at sea. You have to read all the map directions to the secret treasure without it. Can you do it? I think you can." And he made it! That was a big victory. We worked our way thru it a few more times without the spyglass. I have an adult ADD friend who told me that life for him was like a speeding train. He said, "I can see the train whizzing by but I can't see any of the individual cars." So I helped this third grader who is brilliant and autistic to make it over a very early obstacle to his piano playing. He now reads the notes very well. This may be a part of your daughter's picture or not. I've used variations on the spyglass idea with other students-always boys for some reason. If we get them turned around early on it's much better than after a few years of "faking it." The kids who are allowed to continue with poor habits don't ever recover from it based on my experience. Best wishes, Mary Greene

-- mary greene (marygreene55@hotmail.com), February 17, 2003.

A few added thoughts: don't neglect the importance of making sure that your child understands the relationship between steps that are 2nds (movement from a line note to an adjacent space note or visa versa) and skips that are 3rds (movement from a line to an adjacent line or space or an adjacent space). There are also other visual helps such as recognizing 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, etc. Several of the early theory books that supplement Method books teach this skill. I just taught the young gal yesterday who came with her notes all labeled. We practiced looking at pairs of notes in a piece and named whether the movement was a step up or a step down, a skip up or down, or repeated notes, or a leap (something bigger than a 3rd). She needed this review too. I'll need to check on her progress repeatedly. I've also had to really work with my own daughter who is nearly 8 who has about 2 years of study in with me. She became so skilled at reading the steps, skips, leaps, etc. that she decided to forget all knowledge of the "Secret Code of Music." She would just start in whatever position she wanted, C, G, or F and play away! She creates some really perverse sounds because she will play pieces that are actually in major keys, in minor keys or some derivative thereof. I don't want her to stop that because it shows some inventiveness with the instrument. But I've had to really work with her to get her to relearn the actual names of the lines and spaces. She had dumped this information as of no interest to her! So we started flashcards again, written note recognition work, and more. She's improving. But the best resource yet is aincredible free resource on the Internet called Notecard. (I read about it on this Message Board.) It is a computer game/quiz that builds note recognition skills. My daughter is very interested in it and finds it fun to play. I also got her a copy of the old-style John W. Schaum Note Speller (Bk. 1) just for additional practice. I was talking to another teacher today who has a 3rd grader who can hardly see the difference between a line note and a space note. Her piano teacher is wondering if she has a learning disability. Anyway I mentioned to her that it would be useful if we had a staff to use that was a manipulative. The kids could velcro notes on lines and place them in the actual spaces in between. I need to get focused and look hard for one. I've seen them in catalogs, I believe. I think the staff is trickier than we adults realize to some kids. It really doesn't make much sense putting some notes on lines and others on the blank spaces between. I often use a ladder or stairway comparision but I need to start coloring every other step black and giving them drawings to work with. That might help! I tell my kids that reading note motion is like being a surfer riding a wave, following the ups and downs and always keeping their eye on what the wave is doing. But knowing the Secret Code helps us out when we fall off our surfboard and don't know where we are. We can get back on the Wave with the Secret Code. Once again, Best Wishes.

-- Mary Greene (marygreene55@hotmail.com), February 20, 2003.

You can try these online note-naming games which I put together. They include treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs for beginners and more advanced students. Simply name as many notes as you can in 25 seconds.

-- Jon Ensminger (jlens@cybrzn.com), February 24, 2003.

Wow! Mary - that was such an excellent response to Christine's question. Maybe you should construct a Piano Course. I came to this board looking for an answer to the same question. I and my daughter have the same problems with sight reading. After much thought, reading, and research I had come to many of the same conclusions as you but had never seen the solution so clear as you provided. Wish I could have found this answer a year ago. Thanks so very much!

-- Randy (randykemp@hotmail.com), June 06, 2003.

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