Saturday, August 26, 2017

Oh No! My Child Is Playing By Ear!

In the 2nd and 3rd year of Let's Play Music, students play and pass off dozens of repertoire pieces. During some daily practice, you'll likely have the experience of noticing, "Hey! She's not reading the music!"  You might feel a impressed, then a bit worried.

Is She Even Reading the Music??

In Let's Play Music, we train those little ears so incredibly well that most students become great at playing by ear.  They hear the song a few times, and they've got it! It's easy to accidentally forget to train the eyes, too.

Every student has strengths; some rely heavily on their ear skills and others are more visual learners.  Whichever type of learner you have, there are things you can do to bolster their skill in reading notation. 

How We Teach Music Notation

Just as a reminder, this is how we teach music notation (full post) in Let's Play Music:

1. Expose students to lots of simple tunes: so they can find meaning in what they decode. It's fun to realize you're reading something familiar.

2. Show how notes work: up, down, step, skip. Bells an keyboards are the best for teaching since each note has one definite physical bell corresponding.

3. Learn common patterns: quickly recognizing common patterns and chords is similar to quickly recognizing sight words. You can read faster because you recognize these melodies and chords at a glance.

4. Read anchor notes: Middle C, treble C, bass C and a handful of others are the first notes students can read, then go find on the keyboard. Starting from an anchor note, they can read the rest of the song with skips/steps.

5. Find any note: that's note-spelling. Musicians don't read a whole song that way, but at the beginning of each phrase or chunk, we check to make sure we're starting on the right note.

6. Start with success: Reading chords and reading familiar tunes means they will sound awesome from day one. It's very motivating.

7. In loving arms: The emotional atmosphere of our teaching has a big impact on how well children learn!

Don't Look at Your Hands

Sometimes in class we encourage students to look at their hands when teaching keyboard geography or tricky fingering.  Looking at the keys as she hears the sound they make also strengthens neural connections between those keys and the way they sound.  Looking at hands is not all bad!

But, looking at hands excludes the student from looking at notes, a skill necessary for note reading. It also means the student is linking their proprioceptive skill (ability to move body parts and know where they are in space) with visual input-- a habit we want to break.  

Don't worry, she learned to walk without looking at her feet. Eventually she can play without looking at her fingers.  

A gentle way to strengthen proprioceptive skill is to have her put her bubble-shaped hands gently on top of her head (so she can't see her fingers), then sing the bubble hand song so she'll tap the fingers without looking at them.

Covering hands by hovering a book or sheet of paper a few inches above is perhaps the best way to break a habit of looking down instead of up, but can be scary for nervous students.  At first it will be challenging and the student won't look at anything.  She'll be imagining her hands and visualizing the fingers moving.  Once she can move her fingers without needing to visually imagine it, her eyes and brain will be available to look up at the notes as she plays them.

Whenever possible, remind your child with a "DO" action instead of a "DON'T" action.  "Don't look at your hands" leaves a child with a few steps of interpretation...what should I do!?  Instead, remind "Keep your eyes up on the notes."

Matching Eyes to Ears

A big part of reading is wiring the brain to recognize that the written notes correspond to the sound coming from the keys.  Even if your child is already playing a song perfectly, it is still very valuable to follow the notes visually as they are being played.

A parent can sit next to the child and point a finger or pencil at each note as the student plays it.  

I recommend sitting on the child's LEFT SIDE so that your arm is not blocking notes to come- we want her to be able to see what's coming in her peripheral vision and start processing it before she even gets there.

A slightly more complex way of pointing is the V-Fingers. Hold your left hand in a "peace" sign and tip sideways. Now one finger points at the treble clef while another finger points at the bass clef, sliding your < left-to-right as the music plays.  This is a good way to point to music when students need to match up two-hand playing and time them correctly.

Another game for matching eyes to ears is laser beam eyes.  Tell your child to imagine lasers coming out of her eyes.  She can shine a laser onto each note as she reads it.  Only when the eye-laser is shining on a note AND the note is sounded will it explode and she can move on to the next one. It's like playing the game ASTEROIDS.  As she plays, watch her eyes to make sure they stay on the book, going note-to-note.

Books On Tape, PBJ Sandwiches

Now let's get to the crux of reading music.  Your child might have perfect laser-beam eyes AND play the song perfectly but still not prove that she's reading. What?!

If she can play the song by ear, having her look at the notes is parallel to enjoying books on tape and following along with a print copy.  You're looking at the words and you're hearing the words, which is helpful for learning to read, but you're not forced to decode the words.

Is it really surprising that kids 'cheat' on reading if they think they don't need to?

Imagine that I show you once or twice how I make a peanut butter sandwich.  Then I show you a printed step-by-step procedure and tell you it's your turn to make a sandwich. With a huge eyeroll you *completely* ignore my instructions and swiftly create a really tasty sandwich.  For some inexplicable reason, I'm shaking my head and complaining,  "you didn't even look at my instructions!" 

You're thinking, "Crazy lady, I can make a perfectly good sandwich without instructions."  Our awesome musicians are like you, awesome parent who cooks food. They CAN make great music without bossy instructions.

So, next time I take you in the kitchen, I hand you a new recipe.  "Today you can make my gourmet DoReMi casserole that you've never had before. It won't  DoReMi casserole unless you include all of the secret ingredients, so be sure to get them all."

THIS time are you motivated to read my recipe?  Those very strong ear students are the same way.  By providing them something novel and surprising and including elements of a game (did you notice where the melody had a tricky change?) they will be motivated to practice reading skills.  They cannot rely on the ear because they've never heard this new thing before.

Find Sightreading Material

Sight-reading is looking at notes, decoding, and understanding how to execute on the keyboard.

Even better: looking, decoding, and hearing in the mind, then executing. When sight-reading is most proficient, students are STILL playing by ear, right? 

I love my strong ear students because I feel like they are going to be some of the most gifted readers if I can just get them to want to eat casserole.  You know what I mean.

Not all kids and parents want more to do at home, but if you have a strong-ear child who could benefit from sight-reading exercise, you can provide new music notation that she hasn't seen, and likely only plays a few times. A constant, steady supply of new notation will do the trick.

I always give students sight-reading material that is a few levels easier than what they play for repertoire.  It is either simpler music, or I let them play just one hand, or let them play at a slow pace.  The material must be easy because I expect them to get it correct (or 99%) on the first try!

In class, Edna and Edison (those lovable puppets!) play sight-reading games with students, but maybe you need more.

  • Songbook Snippets: Yes, your child can play everything in the songbook. BUT! If you pick a measure in the middle of a song and ask her to begin there... wow, it's suddenly sight-reading!  Jump through the book and play 2-3 measures of snippets.  Have a parent or sibling listening nearby see if they can guess which song is being played. Songbook snippets may be all you need to get your sight-reading boost.
  • Songbook Staff: In the back of your book is a staff. Here's another copy (LINK) that you can laminate and write on with EXPO markers. Anyone can write some notes! Write a few and say "I wonder if this will be an interesting tune? Let's find out!" then have your child play it to see.  Erase and repeat a few times for each practice. Tips: Start with an anchor note your child can find. Move with steps and skips up and down. Include chords and intervals she knows.
  • Teachers are genius at jotting out quick melodies. If you are struggling to come up with some, you could talk to your teacher and see if she's willing to write a couple to get you started, either on your laminated card or on a strip of paper.
  • Purchase items for sight-reading like this book on Amazon, or these flash cards. This Dozen a Day series provides technical drills, but they are also great for sight-reading steps and skips. If she plays a different one each day, she will really have to read. 
  • Recycle If you are in a musical home, you may already have some very easy piano sheet music, or might be able to pick some up at a thrift shop. Have your child play those tunes. Start with just one hand, or just snippets of tunes.  Just a 2 minutes of practice each day on reading can make a difference.
Skills Take Time

During the few minutes each day that you decide to work on just reading, remind your child that TEMPO can be slow. The goal of the game is to play the notes and rhythms correctly.  

Help keep sight-reading fun by presenting it as a game:
"I wonder what the composer is trying to say to us? Let's see if you can read his message."  "You did it! You solved the mystery!"

Eventually tie sight-reading and listening together. After playing a line of notes for the first time, ask your child to sing it.  Can she remember what she just played?  

Don't worry if she can't yet.  Beginning readers have the same struggle- they'll read a line of text successfully, "The dog jumped into the big old bag" but then can't repeat the sentence back...they were so focused on decoding that the meaning didn't sink in yet!  Over time, your child WILL be able to read and find meaning.

That's when you know it's time to introduce slightly more difficult music for sight-reading :)

Sight-reading is a skill that takes practice and focus to learn.  Since your child is already showing great progress with ear training, I'm confident that she will learn to read sufficiently as well.

Finally, for you, Parent: I probably wouldn't use this resource with my 6-year-old students, but advanced students and parents who really want to improve sight-reading might enjoy the sight reading mastery site, where you can learn to sight read by having hundreds of brand new compositions created just for you so you have something new to read every day!  Enjoy!

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

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