Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Reader Question: Cracking the Notation Code

In a comment on my last post, reader Chris asked this question:

I am a very experienced piano teacher but am having trouble with a student learning to read. He just can't seem to grasp and remember the concept of notes on the staff at all! We keep repeating the same lessons over and over, I think he gets it, then the same thing next week. He is very bright otherwise, is pleasant and polite, but just can't seem to "crack the code". Any thoughts/tips? He is 8 years old, and a new beginner (few months). He was going ok with pre-reading, he understands counting/note values, but now we're starting with G, C, and F, and he seems to have no memory from week to week, or even through the course of the lesson. He tries to practice at home but is stumped when he looks at the book, and no one at home is musical.

First, Chris, I apologize that it has taken so long to get back to my blog and to your question!

Maybe some readers will be able to add to my thoughts. I noticed that you said he was 8 years old. Several of my students as well as my daughter are also that age. My experience has been that they display a very wide range of development. They can seem deficient in an area, and then suddenly have dramatic cognitive "growth spurts." In fact, I had a student this year who was having similar problems to what you describe. She was super with rhythm and had a fantastic ear, but she seemed to have a mental block about reading notes on the staff. She was clearly very bright, so I decided to just stay the course, capitalizing on her strengths, trying to chip away at her weaknesses as positively as possible. Rather than hurry her along, I found another method book at the same level and began working out of both methods so that we could slow down. In the past two months, she has dramatically turned a corner. Suddenly, she's reading like a champ! In a very short time, she caught up with my other 8 year old students. I hope that since you posted your question, something similar has happened for you!

If not though, it helps to find every way possible to reinforce the concept of notes on the staff apart from just working in the method book. If you've been teaching for a while, you probably have some games and tricks for this. I enjoy using a big vinyl floor staff. We put a sticky note on a line or space, then run to the piano to play it. This is a great way to reinforce those three "guide notes" you mentioned, the Bass F, Middle C, and Treble G. I also enjoy using a magnetic staff board. One thing that I've learned is that students don't always automatically transfer what they learn from these activities to playing a piece of music. I often have to work at helping them make the connection. When starting a new piece, we might have a "G Search," for instance. I also sometimes show them the score for a piece of music that is much too difficult for them to play and let them search for all of the guide note Gs. It's very motivating when they realize that they can find something they know and understand in that scary-looking page full of notes!

I hope these ideas are at least a little helpful! Do any readers have any other ideas?

1 comment:

James King said...

If your student needs additional reinforcement in Middle C, Treble G and Bass F reading, you might find my book, Learning the Code, to be useful.

It's a free download at

and all the pieces that use the staff and clefs begin on one of those guidepost notes.

I'm working on a revised version of the book, but it's taking some time. I hope you find the book useful.

James King