Fostering Music Literacy in the String Classroom

How Do I Know My Beginners Can Read?

Fostering Music Literacy in the String Classroom

By NAfME Members
Charlene Dell, University of Oklahoma
Molly Baugh, University of Michigan


If They Aren’t Ready to Read, They Won’t

Young players can only concentrate on one hand/task at a time. If beginners are concentrating on what their hands are doing, they will have difficulty decoding images as well. Inexperienced players must be allowed to develop both left and right hand fundamental skills away from notation. Reading before the hands are ready will force young players to divide their attention between reading and playing, resulting in a weaker development of both skills. Many young students think that their fingers will only work if they look at them. Incorporating activities in which students play with their eyes closed helps to foster stronger cognitive/physical connections.


music literacy / olenadesign


Teaching Students to Read

Just as with learning to read words, young players must be taught from a sound before sight approach. Doing so allows students to make an aural connection to the musical imagery of notation. It is important to keep the aural/kinesthetic/visual instructional approaches in balance. Singing from notation allows students’ reading skills to develop away from the instrument so that the brain can focus only on decoding. A sing – sing/finger – play sequence helps students develop the sound they should hear before it is played.

Though writing in letter names or fingerings in the music may assist students’ reading at first, these shortcuts draw the eyes away from the note-heads and delays the development of true reading skills. In order to ensure students are reading, students must be asked to play measures or segments of music other than the beginning of the line/phrase. Though singing letter names is extremely important, students must do so without the help of the teacher if they are to read independently.


Photo: Howard Rockwin, Musical Memories Photography


Reading Games

Several games make working on reading fun. Single note bingo or note finds are reading games away from the instrument that work well while attendance is taken. With a staff on the floor, students can also play notational twister where students place hands and feet on the staff for the given notes. Reading dances, where students must step on the floor staff as notes are being played/sung by the teacher provides a true connection between the aural/kinesthetic/visual elements of reading. The reading machine game, in which each student is given one note to play (e.g. handbells) and must play his/her note in time is another great game to get students to read.


Insisting Students Read: Orchestra Karate*

When students struggle with reading, often teachers help too much. As teachers we must create experiences where students work with or perhaps struggle with their reading skills. As early the second semester, Orchestra Karate can be introduced in beginner classes one day each week. Orchestra Karate allows students to earn “belts” (ribbon/yarn) through successful individual performance of musical excerpts from the method book.

On belt day, everyone practices while the teacher moves from student to student listening and observing. The teacher spends approximately 2-3 minutes working individually with each student, either listening and guiding practice, or assessing the performance for a belt. Students inform the teacher when they are ready to test for a belt. When the line is accurately performed, the student receives a ribbon “belt” on his/her scroll and the student goes on to the next tune. On Karate Day, the room sounds much like an audition warm-up room, but learning is happening.




Orchestra Karate also allows students to progress at their own individual paces. While some students will work on belts roughly in step with the method book lines taught in whole class instruction, many students will progress ahead of the class, and it is then that student learning skyrockets. Students have the tools to tackle unfamiliar music, but since they haven’t heard it, sung it, or listened to the teacher model it for them, they must tackle it on their own. As students progress, they will begin to help each other. The classroom dialogue between teacher and students begins to change:

Student: What note is this?

Teacher: Let’s find a page in the book with the answer.

Student: What finger do I use?

Teacher: Let’s look at the fingering chart.

Student: What does this sound like?

Teacher: Have you tried singing it?

Thus, the key to success is to teach students to answer their own questions. Students no longer wait to be taught new materials because they know they have the skills and resources to figure new music out independently, which in turn, inspires confidence, independence and most importantly, joy. They love playing because they are successful, and they are successful because they are in charge of their own learning.


*The Orchestra Karate description is based on the experiences of Molly Baugh’s fourth grade beginning string classroom



Dell, C.E. (2010) Strings got rhythm: A guide to developing rhythmic skills in beginners.  Music Educators Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3 (March 2010), pp. 31-34

Musco, A.M. (2011) Line by line: Strategies for performance and learning transfer.

Music Educators Journal, Vol. 98, No. 1 (September 2011), pp. 59-67.


Connect with Molly Baugh and Charlene Dell on Linkedin by clicking on their names.


About the authors:

Charlene Dell

NAfME member Dr. Charlene Dell is an Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches undergraduate courses in String Methods and String Pedagogy, she also teaches graduate courses in Psychology and Curriculum. She also serves as conductor for the Oklahoma Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Dell has sixteen years of teaching experience in the public schools of upstate New York and South Carolina.  Dell has presented clinics at the Music Educators National Conference, the ASTA National Conference, the OMEA state conference, the TMEA state conference, as well as the NYSSMA state conference. She has articles published in the Teaching Music through Orchestra book series, as well as in the Music Educators Journal, American String Teachers Journal, and the International Society for Music Education Journal. Her primary research areas are string intonation, currently investigating if young string players tune better to single or chord tones.  She has also published research in arts integration and aural-based instruction.

Molly Baugh

NAfME member Molly Baugh is a Ph.D. student in Music Education at the University of Michigan. Prior to this she taught elementary, middle, and high school orchestras as well as AP Music Theory for twelve years in Oklahoma. She was also the conductor of the Oklahoma Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Ms. Baugh earned her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music Education from University of Oklahoma. A National Board Certified Teacher, she has served as the Oklahoma All-State Orchestra Chair (2007) and the OkMEA Orchestra Vice-President (2008-2010). Committed to mentoring those entering the profession, she has also served as a cooperating teacher for several student teachers.

Charlene Dell and Molly Baugh will be presenting on their topic ”How do I know my beginners can read? Strategies for improving music literacy.” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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