Note reading is a skill that is introduced and reinforced in a variety of ways in a music classroom. I follow a progression adapted from various methods and experiences, but the introduction to reading music and playing as an ensemble varies with the group of students. .
Developing Students’ Ears for Their Own Playing
The Suzuki approach to note reading is so effective because it makes the learning process more closely resemble how we learn language; first you hear and reproduce the new sounds, THEN you learn how they look on the page.
As students catch on to the different notes they play on their instrument, it is important for the music teacher to introduce the note names right away. This strengthens students’ familiarity with naming their notes and paves the way for showing them on the staff. Once there is a solid basis for the note names, a simple visual representation of the notes can be introduced.
Visuals and Songs
With the introduction of the notes on the staff comes many tricks used by thousands of music teachers around the world. From cute songs (such as the “Ants Song” to help remember the strings on the cello and where they are on the staff) to memorable sayings (such as “Eskimos are darn good berry eaters” for the strings of the guitar), music teachers should feel free to make use of any tool they have to help students remember the names of the note on the staff in their clef. Any song or saying that involves movement (whether it is a motion that represents the note, the solfège hand symbol, or pointing to the note on the staff) will access the kinesthetic learning style musicians make great use of when learning their craft.
Just like learning the note names, it is important that these tools of reading the notes are introduced early on in the playing process and are reinforced each time the class meets in various ways. Because reading music involves the development of literacy skills and the ability to identify patterns, students will not always make the connection that the same notes the teacher is pointing to on the staff are the same ones they are learning in their pieces or exercises. These connections can be made quickly but will make a long-lasting difference in students’ learning.
Note-Reading Exercises and Priming
This brings us to note-reading exercises! There are many fantastic books dedicated to note reading that include some beautiful melodies or popular music that students will enjoy playing.
Once the foundation has been built for reading notes on the staff, it is important to incorporate a note-reading exercise into every lesson. For example, some of my colleagues in Alaska write a “Word of the Day” on the board that is written using only notes on the staff, and students may figure it out on their own as they walk into class. Also, I embrace the process of sight reading. I give my students familiar songs or pieces to play so they already hear the notes in their head and can focus on discovering how those notes translate on the page. I eventually progress to melodies they do not recognize. Whenever a student gets stuck with reading notes during this process, I always have them go back to the basics: which notes do you already know? Is the line going up or down? Are there steps or leaps? All of these relationships are introduced from the beginning and are a good review when a student is stuck.
Singing the Music
When focusing on the development of the ears, I make use of humans’ ability to sing. Students are more successful with hearing their music when they are able to sing it away from their instruments. Granted, my high school string players do not particularly like singing their parts at eight in the morning, but it produces excellent results when we take the music back to their instruments. I incorporate singing into most of my lessons, regardless of the age or ensemble, so students get used to performing with their voice and are able to vocalize their part before playing it on their instrument. Singing could include numerous activities, including having the class sing their individual parts for a section of the piece or building a chord and focusing on blending and intonation.
Listening Across the Ensemble to Find Your Fit
After students develop an ear for their own instrument and how it sounds, they are ready to focus on how their playing fits in with the rest of the ensemble. This is how a group goes from a random assortment of musicians to a collaborative ensemble. When students understand how their melody and rhythm fit with others, they can lock into their role in the music making. To develop this ear for the ensemble, I use various rehearsal techniques, such as isolating certain sections that have the melody or the accompaniment while everyone else listens, or building a chord from the root to the fifth.
It is imperative to focus on intonation and rhythmic cohesion when developing students’ ears for ensemble. For intonation, I sometimes have my students listen to a chord that is out of tune and then play it in tune for them to show them the difference. Metronomes and drones are also great tools for the ensemble-shaping process.
Learning a new musical instrument is hard enough, and yet students must also learn the written language of it to continue their studies of classical music. It is important to introduce note reading early on with patience and optimism, first focusing on developing students’ ears for their individual playing and then branching out to listening to one another in the ensemble. The teacher toolbox for reading music should be utilized frequently, as should singing. The goal is to nurture an ensemble that takes ownership of their own parts so that they can listen to one another and support one another in the beautiful process of making music.
After graduating from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Cello Performance, Ruth Schwartz moved to Juneau, Alaska, to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching Music, K-12 degree while working with JAMM (Juneau, Alaska Music Matters), an El Sistema-inspired program.
Ruth is currently student teaching at an elementary and high school in Juneau, teaching general music and Spanish, and conducting her own orchestras.
After school, she teaches cello, bass, songwriting, improvisation, and chamber music with JAMM. She is a strong believer in the power of music, which she has witnessed as a teacher in Chicago, Peru, and Alaska.