A Simple and Fun Note Identification Game

Several of my students seem to need constant reinforcement with understanding the staff and identifying notes on it. And some of them are still in the phase where the “light bulb” hasn’t quite gone on yet. :-) So I’m always looking for different approaches to use during lessons. Here’s a simple game that I’ve been playing with various students for the past couple of weeks:

With his eyes closed, Andrew draws a scale block from the container. Whichever side he looks at first is the note that he must draw on the staff (for the younger students who haven’t learned sharps and flats yet, we just go with the natural note on the block that they select).

The student may draw the note anywhere they want in the treble of bass clef…but they can only use each line or space once! So, if they draw multiples of the same note, they have to find another place to draw it on the staff. We haven’t done this yet, but you could even have the student play the “pattern” of notes on the piano after they’ve used up the length of the staff!

A Game to Assess Musical Scale Skills!

You should see the way my students’ eyes light up the minute I pull out some dice and tell them that we’re going to start off the lesson with a game! In fact, this is what prompted me to compile and produce the 5 for Fun! book. Just setting aside 5 minutes a lesson to do something fun energizes the atmosphere – and can be highly educational, too!

In thinking through how to deal with the Technique Troubles I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I settled on using this game as a way to assess where my students are at with their knowledge of and ability to execute scales. It’s super simple, but proved to be very enlightening! All you need is three dice and either a white board and marker or pencil and paper.

The student started out by rolling all three dice. Then I explained what they had to do based on their roll.

Here’s a close-up of the dice: one is 12-sided with a number on each side – representing every key of the piano starting with C as number 1 and counting up every black and white key after that (this was purchased at a local teacher supply store); one is a 6-sided wood block with two each of the following three options – “Sing It!”, “Play It!”, and “Write It!” – indicating how they were to do the scale; one is a 6-sided wood block with Maj and min on alternating sides – defining what type of scale it should be.

If a student didn’t know how to complete any part of the activity according to the roll, we discussed what it meant and how to figure it out. For example, if a student rolled A-Maj-Write It!, but didn’t know what to do, I would walk them through the process:

  1. Choose and write the clef.
  2. For scale writing assignments, if you don’t immediately know the scale, begin by notating an “A” and then notate all eight notes of the scale (i.e. write a note on every line and space up to the next “A”).
  3. Use the Major scale pattern to visualize the keyboard and determine which notes should be altered with a flat or sharp. If you can’t remember the Major scale pattern, use the C-Major scale to refresh your memory.
  4. Write in the sharps or flats as needed, being careful to identify them correctly based on what you have already notated on the staff.

I adapted the activity as necessary and did it with students of all levels. For younger students, sometimes we stuck to the pentascale, or if they rolled “Sing It!” I played the scale and just had them sing/hum along with me; whereas older students had to figure it out for themselves before singing it. For the ones who went quickly, they got to take more turns; the ones who struggled only got one or two turns. This was so helpful for me in assessing each student’s current scale understanding and ability. My plan is to continue this for several weeks as an approach to teaching scale theory and helping them become more proficient. We’ll see how it goes!

Monday Mailbag – Scale Blocks

Would you mind also explaining your step 1 of how you make the scale blocks – why you needed 12 of the first block and only 8 of the next ones?  I’m sure there is a very simple explanation, but at this moment it is eluding me!

This is in reference to the How to Make Your Own Scale Blocks post.  The only reason I did this is because I made four full sets of two octave C  scales, and I placed a C at the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s the picture so you can see what I mean:

It would probably make just as much sense to do an equal number of all the blocks so that it would be consistent for forming any scale, but I decided to do a few extra of the C-block. Click here for a variety of games and activities that you can play with your students using the scale blocks!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Game: Chord-Building!

For this game, I just used three dice and three game markers. One die had Major, minor, augmented, and diminished on various sides, another die was just a 9-sided number die, and the final die had Root Position, 1st Inversion, 2nd Inversion on varying sides.

The student rolled the three dice and the built the specified chord on the piano keys with the game markers. We just used the number to represent the identity of the chord (1=C, 2=D, 3=E, etc.). For another student later in the day, we used the scale blocks for this purpose instead of the number die. Here’s an example, then, of what is pictured above:

1=C

Root Position

Augmented

This is really helpful preparation for our yearly Music Progressions evaluations because one of the written theory requirements is that students both identify and complete chords on pictured keyboards. This helps them learn to identify and create chords without hearing the sound – quite difficult for those aural students! You could also adapt the game and instead of having them build the chords on the keyboard, have them do so on a printed staff. In fact, eventually, I will probably do both – have them build it on the keyboard and then transfer the same chord to a staff so that they see the relationship between the two, especially valuable for learning to recognize inversions of chords in music!

Game: Interval Grab

This is the game that I used all last week and everyone loved it!

Here are step-by-step instructions for how we played Interval Grab:

1. Dump out a bunch of scale blocks on the piano fallboard (or a table) and place a bell within reach of the student.

2. Instruct the student that you will call out a direction, an interval, and a starting note (e.g. “up a 3rd from F” or “down a minor 6th from B,” etc.). They must grab the scale block that represents the answer to the instruction, ding the bell, and then say the name of the note.

3. The goal is to see how many the student can correctly identify within an allotted period of time. I pressed start when I said the name of the key to start the interval from and stopped it when the student dinged the bell. All correct answers got moved to the right to form a pile.

4. Count the number of blocks in the “correct” pile at the end of the allotted time and then list the score on a white board in the studio.

5. Of course, this game can be easily adapted to all different levels even by just using steps and skips for the beginning students or by incorporating diminished and augmented intervals for the more advanced students.

For a fun variation, I played an Interval Grab/Spell-It! game with several sibling pairs who come to their lessons at the same time. I placed a board in between them and called out the various interval directives so that the final results would form a word. As soon as they had the designated number of blocks and could identify the word, they would ding the bell and call it out. A bit of a challenge, but they really enjoyed it!

Game: Note Line-Up


This game is very similar to the Key Signature Line-Up game, but is designed to drill note identification instead. First I give the student a selection of note flash cards (in this case, we were working on bass clef notes from the low G up to middle C) and have him line them up in order from the lowest to the highest note. (This can be very revealing as it’s surprising sometimes to see a student struggle even with this first step and realize that they need help understanding the basic ascending pattern of notes on a staff.)

Once lined up, they place a scale block with each card to correspond to the name of the note. Again, sometimes it’s surprising to see which students still haven’t fully grasped the way the notes move alphabetically up the keys/staff. If the student struggles with this at all, we continue repeating this phase of the game until they grasp it and can line everything up quickly.

For phase two, mix the cards up and have the student lay them out in a random order and try to match the scale blocks with the corresponding card. You can time them and let them try to beat their previous times or just emphasize accuracy and let them work at their own pace, developing understanding as they go. Anything hands-on like this is great for kinesthetic learners and those who lack the focus to do worksheets reinforcing the same concept. And they have fun doing it!

Game: Key Signature Line-Up

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Mailbag post about Finding Time for Games, this week I’ll share some of the games that I’ve been using in my studio this year.

This is a really simple game! First, have the student line up the key signatures in order from the least number of sharps or flats to the greatest. Then, they place a scale block in front of each key signature to identify the name of the key. You can see in the above picture that I had this older student identify both the Major and minor key. I try to emphasize the Circle of 5ths over and over so that my students use that to figure out their keys.

As an aside, I never use mnemonic devices or the other little tricks for figuring out key names. (Although sometimes they learn them at school and them come and proudly announce to me that they found out another way to identify their keys…at which point they often proceed to confuse themselves trying to remember which trick went with which keys, etc. :-) )

But I digress…back to the game! After they’ve lined them up correctly, we proceed to phase two of the game. I mix up the key signatures and then place them on the music rack in a random order and the student proceeds to line up the scale blocks again, matching the key names to the corresponding key signatures. If it’s a student who loves competition, I often time them to see how fast they can place them all correctly, then let them try one more time to see if they can beat their previous time. Lots of fun and easily adapted to a range of levels by doing only Major or minor keys or just using a few key signatures at a time.

Scale Labels

One of my favorite new tools to use with students are these fabulous keyboard labels that Susan Paradis, of the Piano Teacher Resources blog, created. I’ve started sticking one or more of these labels in the student’s assignment book and having them say the whole-step half-step pattern and place X’s on the corresponding keys. In light of some of our recent discussions on scale fingerings, it occurred to me that you could also use these to have the student write the finger number that plays each key instead of just marking the key with an X. It seems like that could be particularly effective; I’ll have to try it!

Here’s another fun activity that I did last week to reinforce scales. Hayley chose memorizing the Major sharp key signatures for her Cosmic Challenge last week and did a fabulous job, so I decided to reward her with this game:

1. Hayley randomly chose a flashcard with a Major sharp key signature from my hand.
2. When I said go, I started a timer and she could look at the card. Then she had to select and arrange the scale blocks to form the corresponding Major scale. (I encouraged her to line up all the notes diatonically first and then go back through and rotate them to indicate the appropriate sharps.)
3. After she was done, she would say “stop” and I would stop the timer. (I had told her that she would earn 10 points if she arranged the blocks correctly without any input from me. She asked if she could earn bonus points for doing it faster, so that’s when we added the timer element!)

Hayley loved playing this game and was quite pleased with all the points she racked up in the process! I really love all the great discussion and ideas that have been shared in regard to scales lately – it’s re-motivating me to emphasize scale theory and playing with all my students. I’d love to hear any other great ideas for helping students work on scale theory and/or playing!

Prescription for Scale Sickness

I could totally relate to this comment that Mindy left on Monday’s Teaching Scales post and I’m sure that many others can as well!

But truth be told, I am sick to death of teaching scales. It’s not that I don’t think it is important, I do. I am just lacking incentive to go at it again with my students. They are in shock! Perhaps I need to rethink my approach and we will all be more successful. I’d take any incentive ideas you have for getting through all the scales.

So I thought maybe we could do some brainstorming and share ideas of ways to make learning all the scales more exciting. I’ll start with a few that come to mind:

* For starters, I include this scale and chord progress chart in my students’ assignment books each year. This helps us at least keep track of what scales they’ve learned.

* Plan a fun Olympic event centered on scales. Give the students a designated number of weeks to learn as many scales as possible and then place them on teams and have them compete against each other in a scale relay. You can watch a video from one of my piano camps where we did this. Here’s a post with a more detailed explanation.

* Make several sets of scale blocks and focus more on the theory-side of constructing scales for a while. You could teach the major and/or minor scale patterns and then have them close their eyes and draw out a block from the jar. Then time them to see how fast they can construct that scale. You could post the times or just record them in their assignment book to see if they can improve their times from week to week.

I’m sure there are tons of ideas that can help us incorporate scales into lessons in a way that we don’t become sick of them. Feel free to leave your ideas below or post them on your blog and link back to them! This should be fun!

More fun ways to use scale blocks!

As I mentioned in last Monday’s Mailbag post, I’m always looking for ways to turn the teaching or review of a concept into a fun activity or game. Here are shots from a couple of lessons last week where scale blocks became the perfect hands-on tool to help students grasp the concepts we were working on.

Naomi is working on understanding how to identify and construct major, minor, diminished, and augmented intervals. One of the things that I always want students to understand is the importance of determining the correct letter name of the interval distance first, then adding the appropriate sharps or flats to construct the designated quality of the interval. To help reinforce this, I gave her a starting note and had her place that scale block on the fallboard in front of her. Then I’d name the specific interval (dim. 5th, major 2nd, etc.). She had to first select the correct scale block and then either turn it to the corresponding sharp or flat side or just tell me what it should be (for instance, if it required a double flat or sharp since I don’t have a side on the block with double flats or sharps).

Holly is moving from pentascales into octave scales this year, so we started out by learning the complete pattern for Major scales. I had her write this out on the white board for easy reference. Then we used that pattern to figure out the correct notes for the first three Major scales that I teach: C, G, and D. She had to select and line up the scale blocks according to the whole step-half step pattern, and then we played the scales on the piano.

One of the things I’m trying to do better about is guiding my students to play things correctly the first time. This requires a great deal more explanation and preparation ahead of time, but it sets them up for success and more rapid progress. For example, when a student is learning the D-Major scale, I don’t want them to play it leaving out the C# the first time, running out of fingers the second time, with an inconsistent pulse the third time, etc. Instead, I want to prep them so that on their first playing of the scale they are able to play with correct fingering, accurate notes, and a steady pulse.

If they are trained to do it correctly from the very start, the likelihood of error-filled week-long practices greatly diminishes. Scale blocks are a useful tool toward this end. The brain is engaged, the concept understood, and then the technique well executed. I freely confess that this is an ideal that I often fall short of, but that’s what I’m working toward!