There are some piano students who just “get it”. Note reading just clicks for them and with some guidance on your part they’re off to the races; breezing through their primer-level books and on to bigger and better things.
But there are some piano students who struggle. The exact same strategies that you employ with other students just confuse and frustrate. Progress is slow and understanding is sketchy.
All children learn at a different rate, and while your struggling note-readers will eventually catch on with enough assistance and varied teaching methods… their confidence can really suffer in the process.
Here are 7 ways you can give your struggling note readers confidence as you help them piece together the understanding they need to read music fluently.
7 Ways To Boost Note-Reading Confidence in Piano Students
1. Focus on just 3 notes at one time per lesson – For struggling piano students, a sea of notes on the staff can be overwhelming. Whether you teach note-reading in the context of their current piece, using flash cards or even iPad apps, be sure to focus on no more than 3 notes per learning session.
Once those 3 notes are mastered, keep track of them on a sheet of paper in your students’ binders. You can add 3 new notes at the next lesson, but first review the previous week’s 3 to be sure they’re still understood. If not, don’t move on until they are.
This doesn’t mean you need to choose repertoire that only uses 3 notes! Rather, as you work on recognizing notes at sight, choose just 3 to hone in on and continue with the rest of your lesson as normal. With a smaller set of notes to learn your students will experience more success, more frequently.
2. Ask for your students’ input – We all have silly rhymes or acronyms or stories that we use to assist students in recognizing notes at sight, but the most effective way is to ask your students for their input. Ask “How would you like to remember that this note is F?”. You’ll be surprised at their creativity… and often these little gems can be offered to other struggling students.
For example, one of my silly giggly students always mixed up bass clef C and D. After I asked her how she could remember which one was C, she came up with “Ssssssecond sssssspace is ssssssseeeee“ (meaning C) and hissing like a snake. She never mixed up these notes again (and I’ve used this with her friends who all now remember Kiara’s “snake note”).
3. Make note reading into a game – I’m not a huge fan of flash cards as my students seem to tune out after about 4 or 5 cards, but when flash cards are a part of a fun game, they’re desperate to flip over and “solve” the next one. Whether you’re using a fun-themed piano teaching game or whether you make up your own flash card rules, game-based note reading will result in better understanding (due to heightened motivation) and with less perceived pressure.
4. Slow Down – Sometimes we feel pressured to push our students forward… new repertoire, more difficult concepts. This can sometimes result in students who find themselves playing music that is above their current level of true reading ability. If you have a favorite method book series, then seek out supplementary resources that you can use to continue your students’ motivation (so they’re not playing the same pieces for months) but that allow them to remain at their current level of note-reading ability until they’re truly ready to move on.
Searching for method books that support note-reading in a way that is scaffolded, step-by-step and free from surprises? The WunderKeys Primer books have been designed to introduce note reading in a way that makes perfect sense! Find out more here.
5. Compose! This is just one more lovely by-product of including composing in your lessons. Giving your students ownership over their learning by creating their very own piece (and then notating it) is a fabulous way to really make meaningful note-reading connections.
Set boundaries while composing that mean your students are using just the notes with which they are familiar (add in a duet part if needed to make it sound fabulous) and then using either good old staff paper (or a program like noteflight or musescore) help them notate their masterpieces. If you keep the composition short and simple, the note-reading connections they will make in this process will be valuable. Check out this post for a fun composition activity.
6. Continually make a clear connection between visual note and piano key. Some children have such difficulty actually connecting the note they see on the page with the key on the piano. Their frustration often comes from being able to name notes at sight… but then not connecting those “known notes” to the piano. One of my favorite little games to play involves mini-micro cars. See below for how to play.
Using the 3 “focus notes” you’ve chosen for the lesson, show the cards one at a time to your student. Have her first name the note and then place a micro-car on the corresponding key on the piano. Repeat for each card. Once finished, place the 3 cards up on the piano. Pointing to one card at a time, have her remove the corresponding car from the keys. It’s a simple activity, but it really helps to make the note-to-key connection (and the little cars are a great attention-grabber and make this into a game rather than a stressful “test”).
7. Target the problem. For both you and your students, having a clear idea about what exactly is causing the issues with understanding can be really helpful… and getting feedback from your students on their own observations can be even more valuable. Is it only bass clef? Is it notes out of the familiar 5 finger positions? Is it ledger lines? Is it a mix up between just 2 or 3 notes? Is it discomfort when notes are not simply stepping or skipping? Knowing exactly where to focus your attentions will avoid overwhelming your students and will speed up the learning process significantly.
Flex Those Teaching Muscles
Obviously it’s easier to teach students who just “get it”. But it is often with our struggling students that we have the opportunity to really teach… and it is in these moments when we learn, grow and become better. These struggling students need our support and our willingness to adapt. But we also need these struggling students to continually improve our teaching! It’s a symbiotic relationship that requires a whole lot of patient guidance and a keen understanding of how to preserve our student’s self-esteem.