Teaching Note Reading in Orchestra

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    This summer I’ve had the task of helping struggling note readers at my school district’s summer music program and I am wondering if anyone has any suggestions on methods of teaching note reading to those kids who just don’t get it. I’ve used Essential Elements with my beginners and that seems to work well enough with most of the kids, but there are always those few that for some reason can’t get the hang of it. I’ve been having them label and take down notes on staff paper, made a few worksheets on Finale… but what progression to use?… Essential Elements starts by string filling in all the notes of one string, but the letters in the note heads makes the kids rely on that. All for Strings starts out by rote, then all open strings, then fills in the notes of the D string, but over several pages. Still another I’ve seen (can’t remember which one) starts all open strings, then all first fingers, etc.

    What do you find works best to have the most fluent note readers?


    For me, you have to teach them how to use the STAFF rather than just identifying notes, so that new notes can be ‘figured out’ rather than relying on memory. If they can understand that (for ex: the middle LINE in the BASS clef is the Open D string, and when you go up, you add fingers and go towards the A string [top line]… when you go down, you subtract fingers and go toward the G string [bottom line]…) Sometimes, turning the staff sideways so that it mimics the strings [sort of].


    I agree that it is about teaching the whole staff, and a systemic approach – rather than just memorizing notes as they appear in the method book.

    I’ve had pretty good success with the following, both as an elementary teacher in the past, and now as a middle school teacher trying to remediate those kids who come to me and still can’t read.

    Know the alphabet
    Memorize the positions of the open strings on the staff
    Upward motion, through the alphabet
    Spaces – 0,2,4; Lines 1,3 (for violin and viola)

    At the beginning of the EE book (numbers will refer to that book, since you mentioned that is what you use), on the very first pages with just D and A.
    After they practice, I will take a black marker and fill in the noteheads in a few numbers to see that they can still play them.
    Talk about how they knew which was which (placement on the staff)

    Next, talk about alphabetical order.
    What would be the letters on the A string (ABCD)
    What owuld be the letters on the D string (DEFG)
    What would be the letters on the G, C, E strings.
    They aren’t going to play them right away — but they always understand what the notes would be when it is approached alphabetically.
    You can deal with sharp, flat, and natural later, these are just the basic letters you will use.

    As you get to the pages with the fingerings, I understand why they do 3 down first to set hand position.
    However, I think it is confusing for note reading purposes. I have them extend the idea above by laying down fingers one at a time and saying letters.
    One above A is B, two above A is C, three above A is D. Again, you can deal with sharps and naturals later. Or, go ahead and show both finger patterns right from the beginning – – I think it helps later when they’ve been staying in one finger pattern too long anyway.

    When you get to #30 area of the book, those pieces for me are about reinforcing this reading strategy. Notes go up – ADD fingers.
    Notes go down, LIFT fingers.
    Special attention needs to be given to going downward from an open string. Teach this as a actual seperate concept that needs to be overtly taught.

    When you turn the page to the next few (33,34,35,36) – – for me, those are in the book to actively teach reading strategies for SKIPS.
    Spaces are 0 and 2 (add 4 in there later). Lines are 1 and 3. This works in 1st and 3rd position, and seems to come in handy later in Middle school as well when they are first trying to recognize notes in 3rd position. Obviously, it doesn’t work beyond that into other positions. But, by the time a student is that advanced, they should be reading pretty fluently and I’ve not found it to add any confusion.

    So, the first one there (don’t have a book in front of me…working from memory) has upward and downward motion with one space skip.
    Teach the 0-2 pattern. Have the student circle the space skip. Have them practice moving 0-2-0-2-0-2 with their fingers.

    Next one has a line skip. Teach the 1-3 pattern. Circle the line skip. Practice moving fingers 1-3-1-3-1-3

    Next one combines space skips and line skips.
    Sing: Space skip, Space skip, down up up
    Line skip, line skip, down up up

    A BIG part of this part of the book is active teaching of reading strategies.
    I believe very strong in NOT teaching things like face and every good boy does fine.
    In a real reading situation, do we really want kids having to change note reading systems every other note?
    Alphabetical works far better, makes clef changing very simple when that time comes later (just learn a new starting point), and makes ledger line reading very simple as well. It’s all the same system, rather than having to start over.

    Each time you get to an area of the book that teaches a new string, review and reinforce these reading strategies.
    #93 – G string – – where is it on the staff.
    What are it’s letters – GABC
    One above G is…two above G is…
    Up up up add fingers, down down down…lift fingers
    Space notes 0 and 2 (and 4), Line notes 1 and 3

    Do it again when you hit the C/E string

    I’ve had very few kids who were putting in any kind of work and effort at all that weren’t successful learning to read notes when these strategies were carefully and sequentially taught. For some, it might seem like overkill. A lot of kids can just do the “magic” method. Look at the note and it magically pops into your head. But, it doesn’t hurt them to be this intentional about it, and these strategies help reinforce good note reading skills for later clef changes and position changes as well so it’s better for them in the long run than a set of memorized isolated facts that won’t apply to anything else later.


    I use Essential Elements with my beginners. I have the students say note names aloud before playing.

    I have created a template for making flash cards. I make copies on white cardstock. I have my students create their own flashcards for D, E, F# and G. I collect their papers for a grade. When they are returned, the students can cut them out and they can review these at home with their parents. We add A, B, C#, D to complete the D Major Scale. When the other strings are introduced, they create flash cards for those notes too.


    I strongly agree with merimom96 on staying away from teaching concepts such as ‘every good boy does fine’. Eventually they’re going to read in a different clef and they won’t know what to do! The system that worked best for myself and seems to work well with others is teaching clefs. Once the students have an understanding of the A-G alphabet they can be introduced to concepts such as: treble clef circles G, the treble clef is also called the G clef, and violins, when you play first position 3rd finger G, that’s the G on the staff. Similar with bass clef (F clef) and alto and tenor (both C clefs). Using that logic, students can infer the rest of the notes by counting, and eventually develop their own system branching off from the original thought. Hope this helps!


    Learning to read music is just like learning how to read words- the kids need enough exposure to really be familiar what is happening. I teach guitar privately, and what I generally do for my younger students is teach them string by string. For example, on the first lesson, I’ll teach the high E string and the B string. In that lesson, I’ll show them how to play a short tune or two. When they are familiar with that tune, I’ll write it out on the staff for them. I show them the mnemonics for remembering the notes on lines and spaces (FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine) and then have them slowly fill in the notes. Eventually I incorporate more notes and more strings, until they are entirely comfortable with what they are reading/playing. That’s personally my approach, but I know that every student learns differently.



    I just recently had to do a Strings Research Project and one of the tasks was to research several beginning method book. I know Music Directors use the same method book year after year, but if one isn’t working, why not change it up? “String Explorer” was an excellence resource. The first couple pages include just repetition on a single open string. Although it doesn’t begin with the students viewing a staff, it jumps into having them memorize the strings and get familiar with rhythm. On following pages, the book focuses on “Exploring G”, etc. This gets the students working on notes over and over again to ensure they know it! This method book has a lot of “fun activities” that gets students involved. I insist you to check it out!
    I would never encourage the students to rely on writing the pitch letter above the notes. I would break the students of this habit immediately! When I was a beginning student on the violin, my teacher would create “note name flashcards”. Each day we would begin with this exercise. Although it was a challenge at first, I soon got the hang of it. After a few weeks with the flashcards, my teacher expanded to the chalkboard. He would write different pitches on a staff and divid the class into equal teams. We would line up and once he called a letter, we would quickly run to the board and find the note on the staff. This got us thinking and remembering fast! You may think it will take up rehearsal time, but knowing the basics to music is important for beginners.
    If students are still having problems, there is always the option of encouraging private lessons.

    With repetition and concentration, your students will be able to recognize notes easily.

    Chloe Verba

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