NoteStars – A Fun Challenge for Learning Music Notes on the Piano!

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve been devotedly working on note identification and music reading fluency in our studio this past month. The first thing I started my students with was this NoteStars challenge:

I just printed out this worksheet on white cardstock (you can click on it to download it for free!), filled in the name of each student in the left hand column and then used a pencil to track their progress in the corresponding column. Using the Student Flashcards, I separated the deck of notes into four levels as follows (one of the things I love about this set is how many ledger line notes are included!):

Level 1 – Treble clef notes on the staff (11 cards)

Level 2 – Bass clef notes on the staff (11 cards)

Level 3 – Treble clef ledger lines (10 cards)

Level 4 – Bass clef ledger lines (10 cards)

How the challenge works:

Set a timer for one minute. Supply small game pieces or blocks that can be placed on the piano keys. Give the student the level of cards according to where they are at (I started everyone at the beginning of the orange tier). They must go through the cards and place a game piece on the key that corresponds to each note on the staff. However many they get correct before the timer goes off is their score. They can try for as many levels within the tier as they’d like, but they may not advance to the next tier until they successfully complete every level within the first tier on the same week. Please note: For this challenge the student doesn’t have to name the note, just correctly place the marker to show that they can correlate the note on the staff with the key on the piano.

Why this is important:

If a student cannot complete this challenge in the designated time, they do not sufficiently understand the staff in order to fluently read music. The more I work with my students, the more I believe this. It’s been amazing to watch their understanding grow exponentially as they diligently strive week after week to improve their speed and accuracy!


An Embarrassing Confession

I’ve known this for a while, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore as a piano teacher, perhaps supposing that eventually there will be an epiphany and the student will automatically know it. But sometimes you have to confront the truth. Embarrassing as it may be. I recently decided that it was time to own up to the reality.

What reality, you ask?

The reality that most of my students do not read music fluently.

Are you shocked? Rightfully so.

In my preparations for my most recent workshop (Facts and Fun: Great Games for Teaching Music Theory) that I presented to several local associations, and honest reflections on the quality of performances at our Christmas Recital and Dinner, I finally had to face this reality. Granted, I have a relatively small studio now of students who have only been playing for several years (or less), but I realized that I have no business giving them printed music with notes, terms, symbols, and more that they cannot readily identify and execute at the piano. I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s good to give students a challenge and let them rise to the occasion. But the truth is that I’m not being fair to them when I take this approach. I am not adequately preparing them to successfully play (let alone perform!) some of the printed music I’ve been either assigning them or letting them tackle on their own. In truth, it’s like giving them a Russian novel when they are still struggling to learn the Russian alphabet!

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a huge proponent for creativity, improvisation, and rote technical skill at the piano (none of which is dependent on the ability to read music). But if one of my primary goals is that my students are able to play printed music well, then I needed to make some drastic changes to my teaching approach.

And that’s what I did.

At the beginning of January, I sat all my students down at the beginning of their lesson and asked them to evaluate their own level of fluency in identifying and playing any note on the staff. Most of them knew that they were sorely lacking. The one who didn’t was quickly proved wrong by a brief activity designed to evaluate the aforementioned skill. I continued our heart-to-heart by asking them whose fault they thought that was. Some of them sheepishly mumbled, trying to take the blame. All of them were shocked when I confessed that it was my fault. And one told me that it was okay, that she still thought I was a great teacher. :-) Anyway, I told them that I was putting a halt to the learning of any new pieces of printed music until they had fully mastered every note on the staff (for starters). They nodded in understanding, and we’ve spent the last month working our tails off to learn and master identifying and playing every note on the staff. This is our first step, but I am already seeing such tremendous results that I’m excited to continue in this path to ensure that every one of my students becomes a successful and fluent music reader.

In the hopes that I’m not the only teacher guilty of such notational negligence, I thought I would begin posting the activities, games, and approaches we are using to make this goal of musical fluency a reality (and even have a little fun along the way!). So, stay tuned for fun and practical ideas you can implement in your studio. And if you find yourself at the same point I was and are ready to get serious about making this skill a priority for your students, I highly recommend ordering a box of these Student Flashcards (you can order one box for every two students because there are two of every note in it). I’ll explain how we divide them up and start working step-by-step toward mastery.

Loads of Free Piano Flashcards!

In planning for our studio group class next week I was doing some online searching for flashcards. It’s been a while since I visited Jen Fink’s fabulous Pianimation website, so I was thrilled to re-discover this page chock-full of free piano flashcards that you can print and use in your studio! I’m going to be printing off a handful of these to use for various games and activities.

One of the biggest challenges I face repeatedly with my students is a lack of instantaneous note recognition on the staff and correlation with the right key on the piano. Does anyone else struggle with this? I’m going to try to hone in on this deficiency at the next group class to see if we can make some substantial progress in this area. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or resources that you’ve found helpful to build this skill in your students, please do let me know! :-)

Review of Ear Master Pro

I have yet to review a product I liked better or found more musically resourceful than Ear Master Pro, an ear training & sight-singing software! This program is loaded with exercises to help improve students’-even teachers’-ear and sight skills, and I found it to be very nicely laid out, as well as user-friendly and effective.

Upon opening the program, you can first choose a mode and activity from the options pictured below. (Yes, there is even a “Jazz” mode! I’m not super familiar with the jazz style and I didn’t delve into that mode extensively, but I do find it pretty neat they have that as a feature.)

Within each activity, there are different modules you can choose from (some activities have over 20 modules while others have 1), and then you can choose what lesson of the module you’d like to start with. Once you do all that, you are set to begin your activity!

I found the interactive interface of Ear Master Pro to be pretty straight forward and easy to navigate which was really nice considering how many features it has. To be quite honest, I really enjoyed some of the activities myself. Naturally, I have a poor sense of rhythm and am definitely a “by sight” pianist, but I thought I’d give a rhythm dictation activity a try and…I ended up liking it. I believe some contributing factors to me liking this training program so much is 1) the good selection of activities, 2) how much you can customize the activities to fit your needs, 3) it has a fun, educational and techy feel, and 4) the fact that it utilizes so many different aspects on the computer: onscreen piano keyboard and staff, computer keys, the ability to use built-in audio functions or hook up a midi keyboard.

One thing I think is huge about this program is the clear sound quality it has. So often ear training games, sites, or CDs have very tinny or muffled sound, and that can really affect the listener’s ability to distinguish what they hear-especially if they are doing melodic dictation. I can see having Ear Master Pro in your studio as a teaching/training tool for your students being incredibly instrumental in helping them improve in areas from simple rhythmic dictation to chord identification.

Even if you’re not convinced yet to go buy your own downloadable copy, you should definitely download the trial version of Ear Master Pro and try it for yourself! There is also a Teacher Edition you can take a look at on the site.



Announcing…For the Love of Music!

After many, many hours of work, I am thrilled to announce that our latest project is finished and ready for the world! :-) I could write all about it, but instead I’ll let you watch the trailer that Joey and Jed put together for it:

For the Love of Music is a 5-day course to help pianists develop a love for skillfully reading music. Joey and Jed were my inspiration for this course because they are both fabulous musicians, but both struggle to sight-read fluently. We spent an intense week working together to produce a course that they have gone through and that we hope will be a great help to pianists around the world who face a similar challenge.

You can visit the Music Matters Blog Store to read more about what’s included in the package (including a special bonus offer worth $15!). For the Love of Music can be used by any individual who has experience playing the piano and a basic foundation in music theory. The boys especially enjoyed going through it together, and competing against each other between each class to see who could sight-read the most measures of music (they both played 8,000+ measures of music over the course of five days!).

It was lots of fun and very stretching for us and we hope it proves to be the same for everyone who goes through For the Love of Music!

Win a $25 iTunes Gift Card from Sight Reader App!

A Guest Post by Michael Lerner of Sight Reader App

We’re really excited to announce the latest version of our innovative iPad app that helps musicians of all levels read music! It’s called Sight Reader and n honor of the New Year and to commence our resolution to become better sight readers, we’re giving away a $25 iTunes gift card to one lucky (sight) reader.

While there are a number of mobile and tablet apps that teach and allow you to practice your reading, the end result is that you become very good at touching a screen. That’s because touching a screen is how you interact with these apps and not by playing your instrument.

What makes Sight Reader different is that you practice reading music by reading on your instrument and Sight Reader has many ways in which you interact with your music. For the very beginner there are animated lessons introducing the basic notes on one of 12 supported instruments. There are then simple exercises to read and play followed by challenges that offer newly generated music with each use to prevent memorization. In addition, students can use flashcards to test how quickly they can identify then play a random note shown on screen.

For the more serious reader, there are Rhythm Only exercises that are a single pitch with infinite rhythm combinations, Note Only exercises which are steady streams of notes at particular rhythms to increase speed and dexterity, Intervals which allow you to practice recognizing intervals more quickly, and Scales so you can practice your scales in all 12 keys.

What’s also important is that everything you play is graded objectively and students can monitor their results. This makes it great for practicing without a teacher present.

Tell us what’s most important in your sight reading practice routine in the comments below. The $25 iTunes gift card winner will be drawn using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Thursday, January 31, 2013. Happy reading!