Many students encounter difficulty with music reading, and knowing where to find the notes they see on the staff on their instrument. While this is a common problem, I believe it’s one that can be easily addressed!
Let me first list some ways that I believe do not help address this problem (and can actually contribute to it):
- music where the note names are written in the note heads
- finger tapes that include the note names
- excessive finger tapes (where all half-step intervals have their own tape)
- mnemonic devices to learn note names (Ex. FACE or Every Good Boy Does Fine)
- fingering the music
- teaching one finger at a time
These are just a few of the unhelpful teaching methods I have seen, and (unfortunately) is not an exhaustive list. Perhaps you could even add a few of your own!
Now let’s get to what IS helpful!
1. Teach Note Reading by Using the Alphabet
Instead of teaching memorization tools like FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, try teaching students one or more of the open string notes (I start by teaching all 4), then having students count forward or backward in their musical alphabet to figure out note names they don’t know.
This approach works well because instead of having to memorize every note, students can then figure out ANY note name they don’t know on the staff. This engages students with the learning process of problem solving, which is much more effective in long term understanding and retention than mere memorization.
It also empowers students with knowledge that they can use on their own when a teacher or parent isn’t there to help. The more we teach students skills that empower them to become proficient on their own, the faster they will learn, the more success they will achieve, and subsequently the more enjoyment they will have with learning!
2. Teach Note Placement on the Fingerboard by Using the Alphabet
Coupled with #1, this technique is very successful for students understanding their fingerboard. Just like students can count forward or backward on the staff to figure out the note names, similarly they can learn to count up from their open strings, by finger, to learn what note each finger plays. They can then look at their key signature to see which notes are sharped.
Arming students with this tool allows them to figure out notes they may have forgotten. It also helps them associate notes on the staff with their instrument because they can see that as the notes go up on the staff, fingers are dropped, and note names ascend in alphabetical order. Conversely as notes go down on the staff, fingers are lifted, and note names descend in alphabetical order.
NOTE: It may be helpful to write the musical alphabet vertically on a child’s paper rather than horizontally if a student is having difficulty associating notes going up with counting forwards in their alphabet or notes doing down with counting backwards.
3. Teach All Four Fingers at One Time (by string)
If you are familiar with my book; The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults, you will know that in this book I provide an etude page where notes and fingers are introduced by string. Students should not complete all the etudes at once, but learn each string as they are able. The book also includes a song using just the notes on each string to solidify the note names and their placement on the fingerboard. Using this approach I have had very little trouble with students being confused by where the notes are located on their instrument.
NOTE: Aside from helping note reading and finger placement, teaching all four fingers from the start greatly improves the left hand set-up, particularly the common problem of collapsing the wrist and playing with the pinky finger straight.
For more information on this approach please watch the following video:
4. Have Students Say Their Note Names in Rhythm
Before starting a new song or piece I like to have my students tap the beat and say their note names in rhythm. It’s easy to rely on finger numbers to aid learning, but this approach often leads to too much reliance on finger numbers. I have encountered many students who could play a piece, but when asked to name the notes of the piece looked at me blankly, or struggled greatly to make it through even the first line. By having students say their note names in rhythm before ever playing the piece, students learn to think in note names rather than finger numbers. The association they then make mentally is the location of a note name on the fingerboard, not a finger number. I have found this to be a very effective technique in teaching students to read music!
Check out this video to see this approach in action:
5. Theory Work – Writing Note Names
While working with the instrument can be useful, don’t underestimate the value of taking pen to paper and having students do worksheets to help them make the connection between note names and finger placement. There are all manner of ways this can be done. Simply having students fill in the note names on a chart of the staff and fingerboard may be all that’s required (maybe assign this as a task during their daily practice time!).
Other helpful exercises may include identifying all the notes on the A-string in a particular piece, or going through a piece and naming the note name and finger number/string on which it is played. Be creative!
6. Make it a Game
For young children making note reading and finger placement a game might be helpful to keep engagement. You can have students pick a note name out of a hat and find it on their fingerboard, or you can play a note on your instrument and have the student identify the note name. Maybe reward the student with a sticker for getting 5 correct in a row!
The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!
I hope you found this post helpful! For more information on me, my book; The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults, or my teaching studio (including Coaching Sessions for Teachers) please following these links:
Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers