Question: “What is the best way to drill note names? I have my students do flashcards (both paper and digitally) and note spellers, but the note names are just not “sticking”.
“Learning to read music is just like learning another language.” How many times have you heard that one?! How many times have you said that one? It’s an over-used statement… but it’s over-used because it is true!
We piano teachers can learn a lot about how to teach effective note-reading by taking a closer look at how a second language is taught.
Commençons par les bases
“Start with the basics”… every French language class begins with vocabulary building. Why? Because you need something to start with. Basic vocab just has to be memorized… and then the rest of the sentence structure can be explored. Starting by memorizing entire sentences would be horribly confusing.
The same goes for note-reading. Having a young child memorize every single line and space in the treble clef and bass clef is asking them to memorize 18 different symbols almost at random (never mind ledger lines!). Memory tricks like “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” and the like work… but only if you use them every time (and who has time to think about fudge while you’re playing a Sonatina?)
Start with guide notes as your basic vocabulary First, teach Treble Clef – Middle C, and G and Bass Clef – Middle C and F. Memorize these first. Then add Treble Clef C4 and Bass Clef D. Finally add Treble Clef’s top line “F” and Bass Clef bottom line “G”. (These may not be the guide notes you use, but these are the ones I use and they have worked for me!) The rest of the notes can then be learned in relation to the memorized guide notes. Learning the rest “in relation” is good practice anyway as most musicians think in terms of note relationships when they are playing rather than CEGEDDC…etc etc.
La Vrai Vie
There is no substitute for learning a language “in real life”. Immersion has proven to be one of the most effective ways of picking up a second language. This holds true for note-reading as well.
Learning a skill on paper is one thing – learning it in context is another. Teaching note reading as a separate entity from what your students are playing is like learning to speak Japanese while in Germany. When learning a language you want to be surrounded by it. When learning to read notation you want to also be surrounded by it. Flashcards are fun… note-drilling worksheets fill time… but there is no substitute for teaching students to read notation within the context of their current piece. They will make the connection between their eyes and fingers much more rapidly if the two are taught in relation to each other. We don’t always realize, but many children just do not make the connection between “D” on a flashcard and “D” on their music. Carefully watch your student the next time they are completing a note-reading worksheet. I’ll bet you a warm croissant that they are looking at their previous answers to help them complete each question. They’re not actually processing what you had hoped.
Lire et écrire…et d’écouter!
To become fluent in a second language it is important to learn to both read and write the language… and also to hear it. The Rosetta Stone (one of the most popular language learning programs) actually pairs students with a native-speaker online allowing them to be fully surrounded by the sounds of what they are learning. We don’t often think of including ear training when teaching note-reading, but this is important too.
Teaching note-reading at the piano, and including “Can you draw it and then can you play it?” type activities or “Find all of the A’s on your music. Now play all of the A’s on the piano” type questions helps to engage their ears in the note-reading process. This also strengthens the connection between what they see vs. what they play. Your student may be an ace at flash cards, but the connection between that “A” and the “A” on their piano isn’t necessarily benefiting. Knowing “poulpe” on a flash card might help you memorize the word, but until you actually order octopus by accident at a French restaurant you’re not going to retain it.
Ce n’est pas un problème
“It’s not a problem”. Those “Learn French in 2 weeks!” programs touted on the internet rarely work. It takes awhile to become fluent in a language. It also takes awhile to become fluent at note-reading… especially when you are dealing with children. Remember that a child’s brain is bombarded by hundreds of new things and “firsts” every single day. It takes time to file it all away and make sense of it; it’s okay to give them that time.
The most effective way to approach note-reading is not like a sergeant armed with drills, flashcards, worksheets and a stop-watch… but rather as though you are teaching a romantic language… keeping these 4 points in mind, and ensuring you always have a touch of joie de vivre!
One of the best ways to engage your students in the note-reading process is by getting them to compose their own music. This is as “in context” as you can get! Not only are they making notation-based decisions about their own music but then they are also writing their choices onto a staff. It’s a process that is so important… but because it can be difficult to teach it is often ignored. So, we solved the “difficult to teach” part with our new resource “The Adventures of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff”! Check out our 12-week resource that teaches your students to compose… AND strengthens their note-reading abilities!