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When using an intervallic approach, how do you develop faster note recognition? - Expanding on the "blueprint"

If were asked to name the most frequent mistake made by teachers, I would cite the belief that a method or set of materials is complete in and of itself. This belief inevitably leads to some frustration with the materials, and teachers may even abandon the materials to try something else. In reality, every method needs supplements provided by the teacher, no matter what the reading approach. The published materials of a method provide a blueprint of activities to be used and amplified by the teacher as needed. Sometimes, teachers may even want to add their own "tricks" to assist learning.

In this issue, Amy Glennon and I share our responses to a problem sometimes encountered when using an intervallic approach to reading. Whatever reading approach you use, I hope this discussion will serve as a model of how to address problems that may surface in the development of reading. 

Note naming with landmarks and intervals

One of the most commonly cited drawbacks of a landmark and interval approach to reading is that it takes too long for students to identify notes on the staff and find them on the keyboard. I have successfully taught students to read music with an intervallic approach for almost three decades, and I can safely say that I will never change that. The concept of reading by the relationship of one note to the other is logical and promotes musical flow. I do admit, however, that the process of note-naming can be slow and frustrating at times. Although it is not necessary for students to know the name of every note they are playing in a piece, they do need to know and find the starting note for each hand and notes they may have to move to later in the piece. Some students take to the landmark/interval process like "textbook" students. With time and drill they learn to internalize the process, quickly and easily identifying notes on the staff. Other students can labor too long over the process, creating frustration.

I have found over the years that drills and activities can help facilitate quicker note-naming. I have also identified the point in which the landmark/interval process for note-naming tends to break down, and I have found ways to adjust to a more consistently successful process. 

Developing fluency with the musical alphabet

My teaching of note-naming was greatly aided by the publication in 2000 of Time to Begin: Activities by Steve Betts with Louise Goss and Sam Holland (Alfred). In this workbook students experience the musical alphabet going up as well as down in a variety of ways, including work with letters written in spatially displayed boxes and letters written in empty noteheads. Later activities directly prepare students for the landmark and interval approach to note naming. For example, the student is shown a G (later to become landmark Treble G) and is asked to draw and name the notes up a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th from that G.

Even the best published materials are never enough by themselves. To provide students with a complete understanding of a concept, the teacher will always have to explore ways to incorporate that concept into several lessons. For initial note learning, my students and I do "alphabet games" in every lesson of the first months of study. We recite the music alphabet up and back down starting on a variety of letters, not just A, using hand motions to show the stepping up and down. Developing fluency with the musical alphabet has proved to be the essential piece in successful note-naming with an interval approach. 

Another kind of "alphabet game involves the physical manipulation of the alphabet. I have index cards with the letters of the alphabet on them. Students are asked to take them out of a "jumble" and put them in order. Sometimes, I will lay out the cards in alphabetical order with only the first letter face up. Students have to name the next letter correctly before turning the card over to see if they were correct. When this is easy I have students skip a letter/card and name the notes of the alphabet using skips (3rds). 

Here are some video examples of students doing "alphabet games":

Saying the Alphabet Video
In one of her first lessons, Jessica is asked by her teacher, Craig Sale, to recite the musical alphabet ascending and descending. She is asked to begin on a variety of pitches.

Group Alphabet Cards Video
Student teacher Roslyn Anderson leads a group lesson activity with students Jessica and Brooke. The students finish placing alphabet cards in ascending order and then are asked to place them in descending order.

Jessica Alphabet Cards Video
Now that she is more fluent with the musical alphabet, Jessica is asked to "skip a letter" and name the letter before turning over the card to check her answer.

We also extend these physical experiences to the concept of notes on lines and spaces. I use several short lengths of rope to represent however many lines and spaces I want to use. Construction paper note-heads (blank on one side, letter names on the reverse) are then placed on the "rope staff." These noteheads may be placed on the staff in a chain of notes for students to name and then turn over to check. Once this is mastered, the noteheads can be placed in arrangements that will prepare the student for landmark and interval reading. 

Noteheads placed in a chain on the "rope staff"
Preparation for landmark and interval reading

The crux of the matter

Even with these additional in-lesson games to promote fluency with the alphabet, a student can still get bogged down with note identification. When identifying a note on the staff using the landmark/interval approach, the student uses the following process:

• Name the nearest landmark note

• Identify the direction and interval distance to the note from that landmark 

• Name the note

I have found that the crux of the matter lies between steps two and three. At this point students are often asked to visually locate the and mark on the piano, visualize the specified interval and direction, and then name the key. When this is done, the student relies on previously learned white key names to identify the notes. It is this keyboard reference which, I believe, slows down both the student and the process of fluent note-naming.

I have found that students do best when they are asked to name notes without the visual reference of the keyboard. This forces them to utilize the alphabet fluency they developed in the preceding weeks. So, during the identification of landmark, direction, and interval I close the keyboard cover. The students are used to thinking in order to name notes and they easily transfer that activity to this process. (Note: some students with learning issues depend on visual or kinesthetic experience; for these students I will allow use of the keyboard.) 

Follow-through

Some students will need more follow-through (and persistence!) than others. In addition to extra worksheets and regular in-lesson drills, students may be assigned flashcards for home practice.There are also some websites for drilling note names. One of my favorites is www.MusicLearningCommunity.com. This website has a great number and variety of games for students to play. Students enjoy the creative graphics and sounds that help make "drill" a lot more fun!

Naturally there are limits to the amount of material a method series can provide. Sometimes our students need more experiences in order to develop fluency with concepts. One need not seek another method for the answer. Just look at the blueprint provided in the materials you already have for inspiration and direction! 

Using songs to teach musical concepts

by Amy Glennon 

Recently I found myself shouting the correct answer to a contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

The otherwise knowledgeable contestant was stumped on what I thought was a simple question about the Constitution. I'm not an American History expert (not by a long shot), but I couldn't believe she didn't know the answer. Hadn't she seen the "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoons when she was growing up? There was one about a singing "bill" longing to be made into a law, one about "Conjunction Junction" and, of course, one with a song quoting the first section of the Constitution. I can still remember every word.

Later that day, I went to an open house at my daughter's school to see her first grade teacher demonstrate ways in which she uses music to teach the laws of spelling and reading. A question began to form in my mind: "We use songs to teach a variety of subjects. Why shouldn't music teachers use songs to teach musical concepts?" 

The benefits of faster note recognition

I decided to compose some short pieces, with the goal of helping students develop more instant note recognition foremost in my mind. My group lesson students were becoming proficient at intervallic reading and could "figure out" starting notes in relationship to the closest landmark. While these abilities are essential components to fluent music reading, my ultimate goal was to add quick note identification to their skills. The benefits would be both short-term and long-term: Finding the starting positions of pieces quickly in a group setting would lead to a more efficient use of class time, eliminating opportunities for students' attention to wander. Students would be more confident about their ability to learn new pieces in home practice, and they would therefore feel more enthusiastic about the piano. As students progressed, their ability to perform music in a variety of key signatures would be enhanced by quick note recognition. 

Symmetrical numbering of the staff

Before I introduce some of the songs I have used to assist students with note identification, I'd like to outline some of my thoughts about introducing the grand staff. I've recently changed the way that I count the lines and spaces in the bass staff (see Example 1).  

Example 1

This type of counting creates symmetry between the clefs, which I like. Landmark Treble G is the second line up, Bass F is the second line down. C is the third space up in the treble staff, third space down in the bass staff. High G sits on top of line five in the treble staff, and Low F sits just below the bottom line five in the bass staff. High C and Low C are also symmetrical. In my teaching, students practice drawing notes on the "fourth-space-up treble, third-line-down bass, etc." before I get into the detail of note names. This way, students become familiar with seeing note placement in a more specific way.

With the intervallic approach, some students are quite facile at mentally spot-placing (finding the closest landmark and using this landmark to help identify the note). With these students, alternate ways of memorizing notes may not be necessary. Other students, however, take more time. In these cases, my instincts tell me that it's best to know enough notes by sight that the closest memorized note is no farther than a second away. If students memorize the location of the "third-space C's" in addition to Treble G, Middle C and Bass F, then none of the notes shown below are farther than a second away from a memorized note (see Example 2). 

Example 2

Songs to facilitate note recognition

The song that I use to help memorize the location of the third-space C's is shown in Excerpt 3. You'll notice that the song is very silly! It's what came to me; it's short, annoyingly catchy, and even some adults don't mind it. 

Excerpt 3: "Something Wild About C's" by Amy Glennon.

While singing: "third space up ..." students can place a magnetic note on a staff in the proper position. The song can be extended to a second verse which includes both high and low C's. "There's something wild about C's. So listen if you please: (chant) first line, second line, third line, fourth line, fifth line, extra line, extra line... (as if tired) NOTE!" for both clefs.

This kind of activity should ideally be quick and efficient, with reinforcement from week to week. There is another song I'll share about B's (see Excerpt 4). I use a bee finger puppet that flies from place to place as we sing the song. I often refer to the treble staff as the "tree" and the bass staff as the "fence." In my song, I left out the bass clef "fourth line down" B, because it just didn't fit with the lyrics... perhaps a reader can suggest a way to incorporate it? 

Excerpt 4: "I Saw a Bee" by Amy Glennon.

Both songs can be transposed to a higher key. I chose the keys so that students sing the pitches "C" and "B" on those actual notes, at least some of the time. The songs can be sung a cappella or with a simple improvised piano accompaniment. With the "Bee" song, I like to playa simple chordal accompaniment to fill in the rests.

Going into the second year of study, the notes shown in Example 6 are memorized by combining the landmarks introduced in The Music Tree (Alfred) along with the notes learned through the "Something Wild about C's" and "I Saw a Bee" songs (see Example 5).

When we use the rule of never having to go more than a second away from a memorized note for quick identification, the only two notes not "covered" are the following (see Example 6). 

Example 5
Example 6

"Treble-first-line E, bass-first-line A, treble-fourth-space-up E, bass-fourth-space- down A." This kind of thinking might be a bit of a stretch, but there is a piece in The Music Tree Part 1 that helps with the memorization of the "first-line E, first-line A." See "Forest Echoes" (Excerpt 7).

Excerpt 7: "Forest Echoes" from The Music Tree: Part 1 by Frances Clark, Louise Goss, and Sam Holland. © 2000, 1993, 1973 (Renewed) SUMMY-BIRCHARD MUSIC, a division of SUMMY- BIRCHARD INC Exclusive Print Rights Administered by ALFRED PUBLISHING Co., INC. All Rights Reserved Used by Permission.

When the student is in Music Tree 2A, the may be altered slightly and reintroduced to aid in reading of the "fourth-space E, fourth-space A" written as shown in Example 8.  

Example 8: "Forest Echoes" rewritten to aid reading of fourth-space E and fourth-space A.

One might ask the question: "These songs might work, but are they too abstract? Is there enough connection to the keyboard?" To address this concern, I'd chant the words of the songs for a couple of weeks without singing the tune and simply ask the student to play the keys at the appropriate time: "Third space up" (then play the appropriate C), "Third space down" (then play the appropriate key), etc. One can never underestimate the reinforcement, patience, and persistence needed when identifying notes. Ultimately, the quickest way to recognition is taking your time. At first, the student should feel the fingers he will use in his lap, say the note name, and go exactly to the correct note. I tell my students we're in a "no fishing zone." If we emphasize the speed of locating notes too much, students might develop the "deer in the headlights" phenomenon, where they are mentally paralyzed. As in many things, the speed will take care of itself with careful instruction, consistent follow-through, and a spirit of fun. 

Amy Glennon

Amy Glennon is the Educational Director of the New School for Music Study. She is the co-author, along with Ted Cooper, of our duet collections comprising the Side by Side series which is distributed by Alfred Publishing. Her group and private teaching was featured at the 2000 Music Teachers National Convention. Ms. Glennon established the Group Piano Program at Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, MA) where she was on the piano faculty from 1990-96. 

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