Have you ever noticed that many beginning students begin their piano lessons playing freely and with ease with off-staff or rote songs, and then as soon as they start learning to read music, it seems like everything falls apart?

It makes sense that this happens. Reading music is hard! There are so many tiny details that are at play. Even if you use the most simple approach to reading notation, there is still a lot for students to remember. Applying all of these details at once can suddenly rob your students of the continuity and fluidity that they may already play with.

(Be sure you’ve read my overview to conceptual teaching here. It will help give you a better context for the following ideas.)

Reading musical notation is an excellent skill to teach conceptually. This skill is made up of many small concepts that a student needs to master before they see a music on a staff for the first time:

  • High and low
  • Lines and spaces
  • Step-wise motion
  • Reading from left to right
  • Rhythm and note values
  • Finger numbers

These are all concepts that beginning students are probably already experiencing but the way that many method books suddenly move from pre-reading songs to notated songs can feel jarring to students.

My beginning class of 5 little girls is just about ready to start reading notation on the staff and I wanted to share some the conceptual learning activities that we have been doing to prepare.

For the past 9 weeks, they have been learning tons of songs by rote in the context of a C Major 5 finger position. They’re also doing really well with some pre-reading off the staff songs on the black keys as well as in C position.

Last week, we drove toy cars on the lines and spaces of my floor staff. The students discovered the A-B pattern of lines and spaces and eventually we parked the cars on the notes C-G of their 5 finger scale.

Once the cars were in C Position, it became really clear that the girls are 100% ready to read on the staff. They could point to the correct cars as they sang the notes of their familiar songs. They understood the pattern of lines and spaces for stepwise motion and they even discovered that skipping notes would move from line to line instead of following the A-B pattern.

In the next week or 2, these students will see some of their familiar 5 finger songs notated on the staff. From there, they will officially become music readers! For all of the students in my class, the process has been painless and fun and they have felt successful every step of the way, thanks to conceptual learning.

Here are the things we have done to lead up to this point:

  • Before we learn a new song, whether it is on the black keys or the white keys, we trace the contour of the melody in the air as we sing the song. This is a really simple thing to do, but it instills in the students the concept of direction. From the very first day of piano, they understand that when they sing and hear high notes, they hand moves higher in the air and as they descend their hand moves lower. This is something that they will automatically transfer to the staff – high notes appear higher on the page and low notes appear lower – without even knowing it.

  • We have had many experiences playing on the floor staff. We’ve driven cars all over the lines and spaces. We start the cars at the bottom of the staff and imagine they are “climbing” the staff as though it’s a ladder. ¬†This teaches students the vocabulary they need to know in order to understand the staff. I find that when students are first exposed to this vocabulary only moments before playing their first song on the staff, it causes a lot of confusion and panic. Giving the students this experience it well before they actually have to apply it ensures that the vocabulary and concepts are already engrained in them.
  • We focus on the closeness of notes that step and the distance between skipping notes and larger intervals. As the students trace their melodies in the air, they can visually see and feel that notes that step are close together. We also love to use my stair-stepping xylophone to play songs. This presents the perfect visual for students to see ascending notes stepping higher while also hearing them.
  • We spend a lot of time doing rhythm activities from the very first lesson. In the first few weeks, I limit the activities to experienced-based activities, then we move on to seeing what the rhythms look like. We march to the beat of the songs they are learning. We clap the rhythms of the songs we already know. We talk about how some notes are held longer and some are shorter. We experience what happens on a rest. You can read exactly how I approach rhythm in my recent article on timtopham.com. I have a favorite set of rhythm flashcards that I use to introduce note values to my students. I printed them for free on Layton Music many years ago and every one of my students has used them!
  • We do tons of activities to reinforce finger numbers, so that when a student sees a finger number written on the page, there is no confusion over what it means or what to do. Since my current class is all girls, we have done several activities using shiny rings on all of our different fingers. We’ve also held a fidget spinner between finger 1 and each other finger on our hand. As we play songs as a group, there are times when we say every finger number we play.

All of these activities have been introduced, reinforced and applied many times before we reach our big day of reading notes from a book. One of the most important parts of conceptual teaching is that many preliminary concepts have to be established well before a bigger concept is approached for the first time. The timing is crucial.

Also, take note that the use of relatable objects works really well in the context of conceptual learning. There is a reason we used toy cars on the staff instead of circular note-shaped objects. The cars made the activity fun and it felt more like play.  Similarly, using things like rings and fidget spinners to learn finger numbers also give your students something approachable and familiar to work with, rather than only dealing with a foreign, abstract concept.

For More On This Topic

To see conceptual teaching in action, try my free mini-course, Teach Hot Cross Buns To Preschool Music Students. This course is completely free and features a series of videos where I break down the concepts in order to teach brand new students to play Hot Cross Buns. This mini-course is a part of my larger course Teach Preschool Music. Even though this particular course applies to preschoolers, it is the exact same approach I use to teach my beginning piano students. The only difference is that something that may take weeks or months with preschoolers will likely happen in a single lesson with a beginning piano student.

If you’re ready to turn your teaching upside down and get on board with conceptual teaching, I highly encourage you to read Thinking As You Play by my grad school professor, Dr. Syliva Coats.

And, if you need a floor staff, I made mine from a shower curtain liner and electrical tape, but it looks like you can buy a pre-made one here.

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