How does one teach children to read music on a staff?
Well, first of all, it’s not done in the first lesson, nor is it even in the first month!
It’s a long gradual process that needs to be broken out into bite-sized chunks. This lesson usually comes after 3 or 4 months of lessons. They have already been playing songs and have usually amassed a repertoire of over 15 songs. They are playing songs with two-handed parts but have not really read any music on a staff. This is achieved via demonstration and use of the Musicolor notation.
Teaching children to recognize the intervals is the fastest and most effective way to get them to read music on the staff.
By starting at a note they know, then seeing how far it is to the next note, we can quickly move them away from having to rely on looking at their hands and to just keep their eyes on the page.
To teach this lesson, I start by asking a question. This opens a loop in their mind – a curiosity gap that needs to be closed!
“Do you know what a ruler is?”
I then show them a normal ruler.
“What does this measure? “
It could be inches or centimeters or whatever you have on hand. Maybe even a yardstick.
So here’s a new measuring ruler. This one is the music distance ruler. It measures INTERVALS! What’s an interval?
I explain that an interval is a distance between notes. We can measure it on the piano keyboard AND on a staff.
We make measurements between 2nds, 3rds, 4th, and 5ths. Most kids start to see the pattern and quickly realize they know what a 6th, 7th and 8th is.
Then I explain that the 8th has a special name. To remember the special name, I ask,
“Do you know what an octopus is?”
They’ll usually already know and say something like it’s an animal in the ocean.
“Well, how many legs does it have?”
“Right, so the first part of the word octopus is OCT which means 8.” So here we have 8 notes and we call it an OCT-ave. Can you say octave?”
I then draw them a few illustrations to explain the notes played at the same time or harmonic intervals.
“This is what the notes on the staff look like when played together.”
“For a 2nd, I call this the Googly Eyes. Doesn’t it look like two eyeballs looking in different directions? Listen to it.”
“For a 3rd, this looks like two rocks stacked on top of each other. Kind of like stacked stones!”
“For the 4th, it’s like one rock is sitting and another is floating above. Ooh – mysterious!”
For the next, I go back to making the stacked stones and I then say,
“What if we put another rock on top of that so we have 3?
It’s like a snowman! This is a chord!”
And now, for the 5th.
“The 5th is like a snowman with no belly!”
This is usually where I end my introduction to intervals for now.
Later when I introduce chord inversions, I like to explain that
“the snowman has lifted up his head and shoulders for this one.”
And is stretching down with this one.
This activity is from the Musicolor Method™ online training. The course offers comprehensive lesson plans, activities and professional development for music teachers, especially those working with young children. Learn more here.
As a private music teacher, you want to teach music to children. You know they love it and there seems to be a plentiful supply of them asking for your help. Besides, lately all your adult students seem to be canceling at the last minute while your teens are more interested in their social media feeds than practicing. Maybe you should teach younger kids?
But Teaching Young Kids Is Hard
It does seem hard, doesn’t it? Young children have limited attention spans, some lack fine motor skills, and some can’t even spell their names, let alone read a simple word. How do you present the many complexities of music, technique, reading, and playing songs they like in a way that’s simple, fun and won’t drive you crazy?
What About A New Age Group?
But what if you could take a 4 year old as a student? What if you could successfully take on a whole bunch of them and keep them for years? Your studio would be instantly full and overflowing for a long time with this group. You might even have a waiting list. But this would only happen, if you were effective, and fun!
So, what is the #1 secret to teaching young children music?
The secret is a term that we usually associate with construction. Here in New York City, I see it every single day. It’s “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is the temporary structure that assists the workers in building the building. In the western world, most of it is metal, but in Hong Kong, where I lived for years, it’s still made of bamboo!
But the term scaffolding has been appropriated by educators to mean a similar thing. In education, you offer support while the student learns a new concept or skill.
The Balance Bike
This reminds me of the time I was teaching my son to ride a bicycle.
When my son was a toddler, I began seeing beautiful handmade two-wheeled, push bikes without pedals. The concept was that the child could focus on balance before learning to use pedals.
It was a phased learning process.
But why not training wheels?
Well, these have been proven to be more of a crutch than a scaffolding.
So, I bought a $30 kid’s bike and adjusted the seat as low as possible without adding the pedals. As soon as my son began to develop balance, which he demonstrated by lifting his feet while rolling along, I knew he was ready. So, one day, when he was 4 years old, I pushed him down the slope of our Brooklyn sidewalk with the pedals turning. He grabbed my hand saying,
“Papa, do NOT let go of me!”
I began to push and run alongside him, holding on as I had promised. Before we had travelled twenty feet, he began yelling, “Let go! Let go! I can do this!”
And sure enough, he pedaled down the block with the most triumphant smile on his face.
Applying Phased Learning & Scaffolding to Music
In teaching music to preschoolers, I realized that there needed to be something similar. I needed a phased-learning process, some kind of thoughtful scaffolding so the student does not get hit with a multitude of new abstract concepts at the same time.
A Limited Data Set
I started kids with a limited data-set, just five notes on the keyboard that match their five fingers. For the guitar, I taped off three of the strings and just used the three higher strings, using one for melody and the others as drones.
Use of Color
I began to use color as a temporary scaffolding. By directly labelling the keys, the fingering and the notation, I could work on playing songs which they loved while gently correcting their technique over time. Then I could start sneaking in some music theory through games. Eventually, we would start tackling learning to read music on the staff.
My teaching started to break down into these separate but parallel tracks.
1) Playing comes first – but with a limited set of notes that match the middle of the human voice frequency range. This allows the student to engage their voice in the process.
2) Technical facility is gradually developed over time in service of a song
3) Reading of music notation is taught in a 6 stage process from simplest to traditional music notation.
4) Conceptual and abstract music theory is gradually delivered in small gradual steps, usually through games.
Here’s a video of one of my students at a holiday music party after only a few weeks of lessons.
In my ten years of specializing in teaching children, I have consistently had a full roster with a waiting list and the results have been amazing. Last Fall, I began teaching a few other music teachers this method and they too have been experiencing great results. In a few weeks, I will be launching the online course for the Musicolor Method™. If you want to be on the early bird list for notification when it’s ready, you can click here.
Growth Mindset of Children “I Can Do Anything”
One of the greatest joys of teaching kids music is that young children have complete self-confidence and belief that they can do anything. They truly embody the growth mindset. Unfortunately, it seems they begin to lose this the older they get, so starting music lessons at this age dovetails perfectly with their confidence.
Music Is For Everyone
I believe that music should be for everyone. It is in our very core – we are all vibrating at frequencies. Let’s share the joy of music with as many people as possible.
I would love to know your thoughts on scaffolding and if you have any similar techniques? Please share in the comments below and thanks for reading!
“My child loves the lessons but just doesn’t want to practice.”
It’s probably the number one challenge of every music teacher, parent, and music student: how to make practice part of a daily routine.
For young preschoolers, this is something that has to be taught and externally monitored by the parent. It’s highly unusual for a preschooler to consciously sit down and practice everyday.
A Mindset Shift
So in this article, I want to give you a mindset – an overall framework for how to teach practice skills. By understanding the psychological aspects, and some high leverage points, with a few adjustments you can make dramatic shifts in your student’s practice routines and life.
How Do I Know?
I know this is true because, I have successfully taught hundreds of music students in my private teaching studio and because of my wide angle career path, have brought in some ideas from rather far-flung places. Over the last decade, my students, including my own son, all learned how to practice. It’s definitely a skill that needs to be taught.
Routines Lead To Habits
The first thing I tell every parent is to find a time of day, everyday, that can become practice time even if it’s only 10 minutes. By setting this time for music practice, within a few weeks it no longer requires effort, but it becomes a habit the same way that brushing your teeth is a habit. You can always practice longer or at another time in addition, but this is a sacred time that should be honored as much as possible. Usually this works well for a while until the first school holiday comes along! Then it’s back to effort and focus to make a routine which then leads again to habit.
Keep the Instrument In The Center Of Your Space
One thing surprised me when I began teaching young children. I discovered that many parents would place the piano or guitar or whatever instrument in an isolated corner of the house like a playroom or bedroom. Then, when it came time to practice, they would say,
“Go and practice!”
The Practice Dungeon
This makes practice time feel more like a punishment than a shared activity. It’s solitary confinement! It also says to the child,
“This is not a priority for my parent and they are not interested in me.”
So keep your instrument in your living room or near to wherever you spend the most amount of time. It signals its importance in the family. Unsurprisingly, the students who had this “practice dungeon” arrangement never lasted more than a year.
But It Sounds Bad
Some parents will say,
“But it sounds bad! And I am tired or my spouse is exhausted from work and doesn’t want to hear it.”
Well, what kind of signal does that send to your child?
“I am not worthy of your attention and love while I do this activity that you really don’t want to be a part of. Hmm. Maybe I should play soccer instead.”
Grit Leads To Success
Grit is a term popularized by Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth which is basically the courage and strength to keep trying, persevere and the resiliency to pick oneself up and try again. In her studies on children, grit was the determining factor on how successful a child would be on test scores and in later life. Link to Angela Duckworth Ted Talk.
Music Lessons As Grit Exercise
Music lessons and practice is an incredible grit-building exercise. But to build a child’s grit, you need to praise the effort and not just the intrinsic being. What I mean by that is don’t just say a vague, “Great! You’re wonderful!” Find something specific to praise based on their effort, focus, resolve, resiliency and even their so called failures.
Celebrate The Small Wins
So during practice sessions, praise “how smooth that section was”, or “I like how you lifted your hands during the staccato parts,” or “that rhythm was so fun and bouncy!” By celebrating the small wins, you are watering the seeds of psychological growth and letting them see the glass half full as opposed to half empty.
Psychological Strength & Navy Seals
One of the secrets to making it through an elite program such as the Navy Seals, where 94% drop out in the first few weeks, is to either have or adopt a mindset of grit. The key seems to be “celebrating the small wins.” By sharing a half-second smile or a short meal break with fellow soldiers, the ones that made it through lifted each other’s spirits, giving them just enough psychological strength to continue.
During the last few weeks leading up to my biannual recitals, I can see the pattern of emotional highs and lows clearly. The recital is such a motivating factor, if handled well, can be a positive growth experience.
Looking At the Horizon
One of the hardest things for anyone is to set a challenging goal and then continually make forward progress towards it. Many people see their goals out on the horizon and no matter how much progress they have made, they never seem to be getting closer.
The trick is to turn around and look where you came from. When your student is banging their head against the wall and just about to give up saying, “I can’t do it.” You can remind them to first add the word “yet” to that sentence and then show them how much progress was made.
Turn them around and see where they came from. You can do this by looking at previous lesson notes and pieces. Notice the dates of when they last played something that is now considered “so easy.” Also, if you have video recordings of previous recitals, you can show them where they were just a little while ago.
Seinfeld Knows How To Practice
Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld was asked how to get better as a comic. His reply (link) was to write better jokes and do it everyday. To do that, he uses a wall calendar and large red marker. For each day you write, you put an X on the calendar.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain!”
You can see a video interview with Jerry by the NY Times where he details his writing process in his usually funny way.
Jerry is doing what a lot of preschool teachers do in their classroom. There are charts for attendance, the daily routine, and going to the bathroom, etc.
My son is one of these kids who loves puzzles, patterns, and organizing. When he was 3 we would go to the Barnes and Noble bookstore; and he would take out all the books from the shelf and put them back in size order! This was endlessly fascinating to him. So we instituted a star chart for him to reward the behaviors we wanted.
Mindset Is The Key
In learning anything in life, having the right mindset enables you to see the options ahead. Without adopting the correct mindset, you cannot even see avenues right in front of you.
I’d love to know your mindset regarding practice. Does this resonate with you? Do you have any other high leverage ideas to make practice better? Please share below in the comments.
Also, if you enjoyed the cross-pollination of ideas in this article, please share it with your friends.