Monday, October 26, 2015

In A Flash: Reading Notes on the Staff

"The treble clef spaces are easy, you see, 'cuz space rhymes with face and spells F-A-C-E!"  Are you humming along to this catchy tune? That means you and your 3rd year Let's Play Music student are on the way to note reading!
Why did we wait?

This is the final year of the program; are you surprised that we haven't drilled notes yet? In our post on learning to read music the LPM way, I explained that students thrive when they find meaning in the notes they read, understand how notes work intervallicaly, and are learning to audiate as they read before they knuckle down to the abstractness of notation.  Not surprisingly, laying a solid foundation takes two years of ear training and pre-reading skills.

Where are we going?

The goal this year is for your child to read notes with fluency. He will look at the notes and instantly know them. This skill is note-spelling.  "That's F. That's A." Any given individual note on paper can quickly be matched up to its given individual piano key.

The sad news is your child will shortly graduate from LPM. The glad news he'll begin learning lots more interesting and challenging pieces of music. Note-spelling is an important part of learning new music, and we want your child to master it.   In the article on reading music, I explained that being a fast note-speller does not guarantee fast sight-reading of new music.  Musicians use note-spelling to identify key notes in a chunk of music.  Then they use patterns, intervals, and chord shapes to fill in the remaining information for the chunk.  By now your student has had lots of practice with those skills, too.

This is the 
mix of spelling and intervallic skills I hear from my brain when reading music:  "Let's see…the first note is a D and I jump down a 5th…and then I do a run of baby steps going up…and jump down a 5th again.  Then I have to play.…treble E, and then down a 3rd and baby steps up."  So, I don't actually spell out very many notes but they are critical to know.

If you suspect your child is trying to spell out every note of every new song, put a stop to it! Encourage identification of patterns, skips, steps, intervals, and chord shapes supplemented with a touch of note-spelling to hold it all together and keep it in place.  Some kids are gifted note-spellers, but that skill cannot stand alone.

Do Flashcards Help Reading? 

A parent once asked me, "Why do we use flashcards, anyway? When we read music, notes are not singled out and jumping all over the place. Why should we learn to identify notes like this?" 

I sat down with a piece of new music and vocalized for her HOW I WAS READING IT as I played through.  As I revealed my brain's processing of new music, she realized that the few individual notes that I note-spelled actually DID jump around randomly. Unlike the flashcards, the note being spelled was sometimes embedded into a chord or at the beginning of a run of melody. I took a highlighter and marked only the notes that needed spelling for successful reading of the song and challenged her (and the student) to quickly spell and play them. Now they knew almost everything they needed to play this new piece of music, too!  The exercise looked slightly different but felt very much like using flashcards. 

Want to try it with some new music? Here is a free copy (link) of Bach's Minuet in G and I marked the notes I want you to note-spell in the first 2 lines. The rest of the notes will be discerned from intervals, steps, and skips. Just do one hand at at a time to begin. As you move from one note to the next, ask "What interval do I need to jump? Am I going up or down?"  

Let's Get Fluent

How fast is fluent? How quickly should students be able to identify notes? If a student is sight-reading and takes more than 1-2 seconds to play a note, she is going to struggle. 

We divide the process into two steps. First is saying the alphabet name of the note and second is playing it on the keyboard.  This year I challenge you to identify (say) all 27 note cards in one minute! 

To be fair, you may find this to be way too easy for your child, or incredibly tough. Teachers value the learning process and focus most on the process and continued success. 1:00 to 1:30 is still the reference to aim for, but the real goal is for students to shave a few seconds off their own personal best time at each practice.  Most teachers have an incentive club, like "In A Flash" club, to motivate students to improve their time each week. Your teacher might even offer a prize if you can improve your time by 0:05!

At Home
Most progress with note memorization will be developed during at-home practice. Here are some ideas to help you make great progress:

*On the Road: Like so much of what we're working on, daily work is best. Flashcards are special because they don't need to be at the keyboard! I keep a set in my car and my daughter knows that every time she gets in the car, she runs through the cards once before we turn on the radio.  Maybe you can put a set in your purse and find a way to plant flashcards into your daily routine.

*Less Singing: You'll quickly notice there isn't time to sing "All Cows Eat Grass" or some other verse for each card. Like all the best mnemonics, the song lyrics will slowly fade away from the mental processing as the notes develop a meaning of their own.  Students will start to only use lyrics on tricky notes, and eventually they have learned the note and stop needing lyrics. If your child is hanging on, encourage him to say only one word of the lyric ("grass", "boy", "apart") instead of singing the whole verse. Eventually just say the letter. The song is a means to an end.

*Tricky Pile: When I practice with my daughter, I give 2-3 seconds for her to say each note.  If she cannot, I put that card in a "do-over" pile, which we go through a few extra times that day. This way, she's not focused too much on being timed, and the tricky cards get extra attention.  

*Favorite Four: Some days we will pick out a small group of cards and really master them, flipping through the small pile over and over.  Of course you can use lines or spaces, but I find other groups, too.  For example, F is a note that my daughter always knows well, so we sometimes pick E, F, G, A and drill on just those for 3 minutes.  She learns the notes well by learning how they relate to her well-known F.  We might do the same with treble B,C,D,E since she knows treble C so well.  In the bass clef, we pull out F,A,C and learn to recognize them as the parts of the well-known F-chord, then we pull out just E,F,G,A in the bass clef.  You can choose any small groups you like, and take some time to really see relationships in the notes.  

*Pick A Card: Hold the cards facedown, fanned out. Let your child pick each card to read.

*Road to Success: Lay the cards out in a long line. The student walks along, picking them up and reading them. You can make your own tradition for what lies at the end of the road. It could be the road leading into our out of the practice room, or leading to snack time!  For another variation, have a student at each end of the road, coming toward each other very quickly. When they get to the middle, see who read the most cards!

*Memory: You will need both octaves of cards to be sure you have 2 of each letter. When flipping over two cards, shout out the letters as quickly as possible. They won't look the same- kids will actually have to read them to see if they are the same letter (from different octaves).

*Searching for… Lay the cards on the floor face-up. Say "I'm searching for….A!" and have her find it as quickly as she can, or have two children race.  Or give harder clues like, "the note a third above C!"

*Quiz Mom: Have your child quiz you. Get some wrong on purpose to see if she can corrects you! if she doesn't correct mistakes, say "oh no! I tricked you!" and you earn a point for each time you trick her.

*Sorting: First decide how to sort. I take a sheet of paper and write ABC, and on another DE, and another FG.  As quickly as possible, have her put the cards on their correct piles.  You can change this game by writing words with bold letters, like "GinA is Cool" should collect only G,A and C cards and "Boy BAnD" would collect only A, B, and D cards. The goal is to get the cards into place quickly!

*Wild Card: Beforehand decide one letter is a wild card, and decide to do something crazy when you get to it. It's fun to anticipate when it's coming.  We like to say that when we get to the wild (say, D) whoever notices it first gets to tickle and kiss the other person!

*Duck Duck Goose: This is most fun if you get other family members to play.  Spread the cards in a circle. Everyone walks around them while you say "Duck, Duck…Goose!" Everyone drops down and reads the card in front of them as quickly as they can. Don't be the last one to say anything! Laugh about it, cheer for the fast kids, then stand up and move again. Try to make Dad always sit at the card he can't seem to remember. That's always funny.

*Online Fun: You can drill with's online flashcards here or drill play a variety of music games at Tonic Tutor or try the easy-to use topics at I'd love to hear about other online games you found useful!

*Ipad Fun: Practice with phone and iPad games like Music Tutor or  Noteworks. What are your other favorite apps for practicing note reading? There are dozens out there!

I hope you have some fun working on flash cards and learn to read them in a flash. Please tell us about which games you like, and share photos of your kids playing the games or practicing!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher

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