Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Say it, Play it! Reading and Sight-Reading From the Staff

In my previous post, In A Flash!, I explained how we use flash cards to help teach students to read notes on the staff.  Students can look at the staff and quickly say the letter name of the note represented.

3 Step Reading
Of course the letter name is not the full meaning of the note on the staff. Letters are an abstraction that help us talk about keys and teach music theory. We absolutely can't get through class without having letter-names for notes, but the piano key is the real meaning behind the note on the page. Reading the note and playing it on the keyboard (Say it-Play it) is the really practical skill, the end result of several steps, we are driving at. 

STEP 1: A new student reads the note and identifies it "This is F!" (in my class, I have them sing the pitch as part of our game). Our purple flashcards help them learn this skill.
STEP 2: The student holds a mental visualization of what "F" looks like. Our alphabet pieces games from Yellow semester help them learn this skill.
STEP 3: The student seeks and finds the matching note, in the correct octave, and plays it. Again, I have them sing the pitch "This is F!" for ear correction. What do we have to help learn this skill? Teeny tiny flashcards.

Teeny Tiny Flashcards
I was looking for a way to really practice STEP 3 in the decoding process, and was delighted find these teeny tiny note flashcards that are exactly the size of a piano key (you can print them for $2) or you can get a similar, free version here.
I printed a set and mounted them on a foam sheet, and cut them up. I introduced them to my daughter in groups just as she was learning the groups in 3rd year.  

I keep my tiny flashcards a little treasure chest on the piano and play games with my daughter to reinforce step 3 of the reading process. Just do one game for a few minutes each day instead of or in addition to your purple cards.

Say It- Play It- Lay It: Your LPM teacher likes to play "Say It- Play It".  We just add one more step. Draw the card, say the letter, play it on the keyboard, and lay the card on the key to show you're done.  Each time you play this game, decide how many cards you will do.  As you get faster, increase the number of cards you do at each practice. Attempting the whole box at your first sitting can be daunting, so pick a number that will just take 3 minutes, and congratulate your student on getting faster each time. Alternatively, decide you will work for 3 minutes and see how many you can get done.

Bananagram: Each person gets 5 cards randomly.  Ready, set, go! Put them on the correct keys as quickly as you can.  When one person is done, they say "take two!" and everyone must take 2 more (whether you were done or not!).  Continue in this manner until the box is empty...then give everyone enough time to finish placing the pieces in their hand. 

Fix-it, Felix! This game works well if you have a toddler who is longing to help. Let your youngster arrange the cards on keys in the octaves you are working on (they will be laughably wrong.) Then, your student chooses one card, picks it up and moves it to the correct key, bumping off whatever card had been there.  She then takes that card to its correct home, bumping off whatever card had been there, etc. If you get a point when a card goes into an empty slot, do a quick check to see if you have won (everything correct) or not (when you find a mistake, pick it up and start working again.) It's exciting if you can win in one run without hitting any restarts!  Your toddler will love to clean up for you, too, if you cut a slot in an oatmeal can for her to mail the pieces into.

Crazy Composer Choose 5-6 notes randomly from the box and put them on the correct keys. Play the 5 notes. Then, play them in any order to create your crazy composition.  You are allowed to duplicate notes and make up any rhythm, but you can only use those notes!

Sol-Mi Soundboard: Draw a card, play the note, and place it on the key.  Sing that note as "sol" and follow with a minor-3rd step down to "mi".  Yes, they key in which you sing will change but you should be able to sing a sol-mi anywhere, any time, any key (LPM Teachers practice this, too)! That's the joy of being able to hear and sing intervals.  (play 'sol' then play 3 keys lower to hear 'mi'.  The color of key doesn't matter...just count down 3). Repeat with other cards.  No matter where you start, you can sing this interval, I know it.

Go Fish: Play this game once you have all of the treble and bass clef lines and spaces in your box.  Each player starts with 4 cards.  Ask another player, "Do you have any treble-clef-spaces?" If so, they have to give them over! If not, you "go fish" for a card.  Once you have all of the notes needed to sing one verse of our treble, bass, line, space song, place them on they keys where they belong, then continue the game.

Where are We Going?
Wow, the 3-steps for reading notes seems to take a long time: too long to be useful if we play every note in a song like that.  As I mentioned in our post on learning to read, we read most of the song by looking at intervals and chunks of patterned notes. We only need to spell-check a small percentage of notes in a song, so it's okay if those take a little more time.

With practice, you'll also get incredibly faster at finding individual notes. When I read new music, I don't take mental time to think of the letter name.  Because I have been conditioned, I have dropped that middle step and the process is faster.

It's like when we first learned to read words: we always noticed the individual letters (C-A-T) and thought about what sound each letter represented.  As we improved, we stopped thinking of the abstract names of the letters, and just focused on the sounds they represented, and eventually moved on to noticing the whole word as a chunk.  Learning to read music has a similar progression. For now, work on getting fast at matching staff notes to keyboard keys!

Want to be a Sight-reader?
Some musicians have a great ear, some are excellent at reading, and at Let's Play Music we set our students up to do both! 

Sight-reading is the ability to look at music and play it correctly without having practiced it.  How can you become better at sight-reading?  A recent study surveyed MTNA-certified piano teachers and found that while 86% thought sight-reading was important, only 7% said they addressed it systematically with their students. 

So it seems the answer may still be elusive, or may be the same for learning to read written words: read, read, read!  This means you'll need a stockpile of easy-to-play tunes or a website that generates them for you.  Songs you can sight-read correctly are MUCH simpler than songs you can play, but need a bit of practice on.  So, you'll need a stockpile of easy stuff to start with. You might spend a few minutes at each practice sight-reading a few pieces!

Franz Liszt, known as the best sight-reader of all time, has a few tips for you as you begin your sight-reading journey:

1. Focus on Rhythm: The audience can forgive a mistake in pitch, but not rhythm. If you miss a beat, the whole song will be off (especially if you're playing with an ensemble!).  Keep the rhythm perfectly and do your best with notes.

2. Don't Stop: Remember rule 1? The audience and judges will forgive a wrong note or two, but if you stop and go back to correct it, it draws attention to the mistake and disrupts the flow of the piece (and your ensemble will leave you behind!) So RESIST the urge to stop and correct.  For sight-reading, you must keep going. (If you are learning a new song and not trying to sight-read, learn it measure by measure for goodness sakes.)

3. Let the most difficult passage set the tempo: Your goal is to play the whole piece correctly.  You've heard this music before, and you know there's a tricky bit in the middle, so start off playing slowly enough that you'll be successful on the tricky bits, too.

4.Learn to look ahead: When you drive a car, you don't only look at the pavement directly under your car, or just in front of the hood! To be safe, you look a few blocks ahead so you know what is coming in the next 4-8 beats.  In music, push yourself to be looking at the measure beyond what you are actually playing, so you can process and prepare for it.

Only play any piece of music TWICE for sight-reading. After that, I'm guessing you'll start to memorize it. If you had a lot of errors BOTH TIMES you played it, choose something easier for your sight-reading efforts.
Good luck with your reading skills: Read, read, read, and over time the difficulty level of your sight-reading material will advance.  Maybe someday you'll be like Liszt: able to sit down and play challenging pieces you've never seen!

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

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