Archives for posts with tag: sight-reading

One of my transfer piano students once told me a story about her first experience of learning how to read musical notation. She said ‘my teacher told me to memorise the notes (i.e. letter names and position on the stave) but it’s not reading though, is it.’  She was making a good point there, I thought. How to get better at reading music is not focused on being able to identify each individual note in the music. It’s the ability to be able to see a series of notes as a pattern (scalic or chordal), and hear how it should sound like in your head before playing it. Although, knowing some notes by name and their positions on the stave and keyboard is essential to begin with. As soon as students learn a few notes’ position on the stave and keyboard and are able to play a couple of simple tunes, they should start exercising reading/playing melodic/chordal patterns, along with singing them whilst playing; you’ll be surprised how much ‘singing’ can contribute towards the control your finger movements.

Keeping the above thought in mind, I’ve tried many ways of exercising reading skill over the past years. Some approaches turned out be time consuming than the others. When I realised that most of my students rather spend their time focusing on playing music they enjoy (although they wish to improve their reading skill!), I wondered if I could use a Flashcard drill idea for melodic/chordal reading exercise. So that students won’t feel it’s a task, but it’s more like a reading game at the end of each lesson. And if I can make it to be something simple but musically and harmonically pleasing yet at the same time exercises their coordination skills required for reading/playing…

Note Reading Drills for piano_cover

Out came this note reading exercises for piano. Exercises are based around 5 set of landmarks notes grouped into 5 sections.  Some of the exercises have an accompaniment to show how a simple exercise can turn into something more, which I hope gives students some space to explore dynamic shaping and tone control or use it as a motif for composition.

Metre is not set on the exercises but the black notes are to be played steadily and slowly with even note value.  So that they can focus purely on reading a series of notes without worrying about rhythmic values. Students also have a chance to create their own exercises.

The idea of this booklet is to help students learn some notes as a guide note to find other notes around them and also to gain a skill to be able to read a series of notes as a pattern (scalic, chordal or mix), which is an essential skill to be become better at reading music.

The booklet is in an A6 landscape format, and is plastic coil-bound. There’re 75 melodic (some chordal) patterns plus 10 little pieces at the end. It’s a small book but the note sizes are much bigger than those in beginner’s piano books. I’d say it’s a pocket size so you can carry it about anywhere. You can even practise reading away from the piano, should you wish too! Another useful skill to exercise; being able to sing the melodic pattern without playing it; visualising the finger movements according to the melodic (chordal) patterns.

I’ve been testing the drills with my students aged 9 and above.  It’s helping me identify the weaknesses in their reading skill, whether reading across the two staves, melodic intervals, etc.  They seem to enjoy doing it as a fun game.  Particularly when I play the accompaniment and use sustain pedal for a sound effect!

The booklet is available from my website shop.

Happy reading!


Alphabet Song Book_1

As I explained here, the basic idea of this book is to help piano beginners (aged 7 and above) to get started with learning how to read musical notation.  I thought I’d share how I’m using this book in the lessons.

The contents are simply laid out so that students can get on with work on a need-to-know basis. The intention of this book is to help the piano beginners grasp how learning to read musical notation works, by repetition, writing and creative activities. The book also leaves enough space for students and teachers to explore other details of piano study when ready, such as experimenting with dynamics, articulations, phrasing, tempi, technique, etc.  Teachers can add a simple accompaniment to help students establish a steady pulse and also cultivate a listening ear.

Page 4
The use of four-colour strip for the piano keys is inspired by the Colourstrings. I find it the most useful tool to make the ocean of black keys and white keys on the piano looks somehow manageable. Here’s a template to create a four-colour strip, which should fit on any standard key-sized piano. Make sure to open the file in Acrobat Reader and print it out as an ‘actual size’, not ‘fit to page’).  I use self-adhesive book cover vinyl (cut to 2cm square) to paste four strips together (much stronger than standard cellotape, I find).


Page 2 & 3
Keyboard orientation.
I’d usually introduce BAG only for young children. The reason being that the first half of the book is focused on learning the melodies based on BAG.


Page 5
An example of rhythmic patterns appeared throughout the book is introduced here in a 4-bar rhythm tune. Students can experiment with it by creating a tune using these rhythms, starting with one-note playing (any note or position across the keyboard!). Then, with two notes, then three, etc. Teacher and student can try a ‘call & response’ improvisation game; for example, the first 2 bars played by the teacher, followed by the  the student playing the next 2 bars.

Alphabet Song Book page5_small

The key thing to remember here is to sing the rhythmic syllables (e.g. shortshortlong) whilst playing the notes, with a steady pulse. Each heart shown on the page represents one pulse (beat).

Pulse in music is like our hearbeat; you can’t hear it but it’s always there ticking and you can feel it. Ask your student to tap each pulse as they sing the rhythms. This is the first ear-eye-hand coordination exercise!; tapping one thing and singing another at the same time.


Page 7 (the first BAG tune!)
Start with one-hand playing, right or left hand. Find the hand position using the keyboard guide.   Remember to sing the rhythmic syllables (NOT the letter names!), this exercises the skill to be able to follow two different information at the same time. Complete writing the rhythmic notation above each letter name. From the next page on, dotted guide line for the rhythmic notation disappears. It’s students’ job to remember to write in rhythmic notation above each letter name from page 8 onwards. It encourages students to be constantly aware of the note value attached to each note.

Students also could play the tune with both hands to develop the coordination.


Page 13
Practise writing
B note on a single F (bass) clef stave. Learn to write the same note in various note values here. Keyboard guide now has the Middle C position marked in. Have students try finding the B note below Middle C on page 12. Make sure which clef stave students should be looking at, top or bottom.

Alphabet Song Book page13_small

As a practice of being aware of rhythmic value for each note, trace over each rhythm line under each letter name with a colour explained on page 5.


Page 14
From this page onwards, students can write rhythmic notation with the stem pointing downwards if they wish to. Why is the note upside down? The answer is on page 11 where students practised writing notes on the great stave. Refer to it again and have them explain why!

Also from this page onwards, students have a chance to remind themselves of the new note they’ve just learned, by spotting it amongst other notes.

For one bar on this tune, the letter names disappears and are replace by the B notes written on the F (bass) clef stave. Ask students what notes they are; they would know what to play there. Make sure students are still singing rhythmic syllables whilst playing the notes. Finally, ask students how many B note they can find in this tune.

Also I’d experiment with dynamics at this point when students are getting used to playing some tunes. Loud (forte) and soft (piano). Let students decide which bars (measures) they wish to play loud and soft and add dynamics markings accordingly.


Pattern recognition
. Can students find repeated melodic patterns in this tune? Once they recognise them, they can be aware of playing the same thing twice. Economical reading skill!

A new note, A, to practise writing on the F (bass) clef stave. I’d have students compare it with the B note and explain the difference (line note, space note, where on the stave, etc.)

Alphabet Song Book page16_small

Page 17
Time to experiment with articulation here. Legato playing. What’s legato playing? Basically, imagine your fingers are your legs doing a walking action on the keyboard; one finger presses the key, and then the next finger presses but the link between the two fingers slightly overlaps before the first finger releases the key, so that the two notes sound connected rather than disjointed. The arch marking to indicate legato playing is called slur. Write a slur marking over the first three notes to be played legato. Ask students to write some more slurs in!

Alphabet Song Book page17_small

Page 19
All the letter names now disappear! But students know which note is B, A, G note by now. Although it’s important recognise each note in letter name, it’s equally important to be able to see a group of notes as a pattern. B-A-G looks like a smooth downward slope. B-G-A is more ragged. It’s a useful exercise to drawn students’ attention to the patterns in each tune. I’d also challenge them to find BAG in the tune; circle the B-A-G pattern and sqaure the backwards BAG, G-A-B pattern), not only within a bar (measure) but also across the barline!


Page 22
page! The first 8-bar tune is to consist of two 4-bar tunes that students have learned in the previous pages. Choose 2 pages to copy or transcribe. If students choose from page 7 to 13, the notes are all in letter names, so they have to trascribe the letter names into notation, which is an exercise itself to test their knowledge on these three notes, BAG. The second 8-bar tune is to be composed by students.  This is a creative test to see how imaginative students can be to come up with yet another tune consisting of 3 notes only. Be prepare to be surprised!


Page 23
Appearance of the D note on the G (treble) clef stave. From this page on, the tunes will be laid out on the double staves (great stave). Usually, the top stave is for the right hand, the bottom stave is for the left hand. Warning here!: G (treble) clef doesn’t mean ‘right hand’ and F (bass) clef doesn’t mean ‘left hand’! G (treble) clef simply refers to the area above the Middle C. In some music, the left hand does play the notes above the Middle C on the keyboard. In that case, you’ll see G (treble) clef on the bottom stave as well as on the top stave.

Up to the previous page, students could play the tune with both hands in unison but from this page on, the both hands’ positions are set specifically as indicated.

It’s another good point to experiment further with dynamics; Soft (piano), medium soft (mezzo piano), medium loud (mezzo forte), loud (forte), gradually getting louder (crescendo) and getting gradually softer (diminuendo). Perhaps in the faster speed when ready.

It’s also a good time to introduce the real names of note values for short, long, twice as long, etc.  In my piano studio, I use American name rather than British, simply because it makes more sense and it helps students understand the concept of time signature when they get to it.

The second half of the book covers more BAG tunes with two added notes, E & D (ED). Go over (again) page 3 to get familiar with all FEDs across the keyboard. Work through the pages to the end likewise as suggested for the first half of the book.

Alphabet Song Book 2 (for piano) will explore triple time (3/8 time rather than 3/4 time), and more words, FED, EGG, Cs and A-B-C in addition to BAG, and delve into the concept of basic time signatures. 2/4 and 3/8. It’ll be available soon.

Happy reading!

I’ve been using this book with my piano beginners for some time now; some started with no interests in reading musical notation; some had some knowledge of musical notation but haven’t quite got the hang of it; some can play pop songs by rote but never tried reading musical notation, some had just started the piano but keen to learn how to read music, etc.

When they get to about page 29, I started giving them a couple of longer pieces as a challenge from various beginner’s piano books, such as Jibbidy-F and A-C-E by Hoover Ward, Music Lessons Have Begun by Fletcher, various primer level pieces from Faber & Faber’s Piano Adventures series, Hal Leonard’s Broadway and Movie Hits Level 1 (piano duet), etc.  My students’ reaction to this challenge has been quite a positive one and when they realise they can read music to play a proper tune, it certainly boosts their confidence and motivation to carry on with the rest of Alphabet Song Book 1 and beyond!

My students’ favourite part of the book is composition pages .  By the time they reach composition pages, they usually have some knowledge on flats and sharps which are covered in pieces such as Pink Panther, which I usually teach them by rote.  Although the suggested notes and rhythms for the composition work are from the book, they often tend to experiment using the knowledge they have learned outside the book as well.

This is the part I do enjoy too as a teacher; getting a glimpse of my students’ creative world that I haven’t seen before.  Some use similar patterns from the book but in a different order or their repetition; some create mysterious sounding music using suggested notes but with sharps and flats;  some show a skill of creating symmetrical patterns; some show natural sense of 2-bar phrases; some adds other musical details such as dynamics and articulations themselves without me reminding them; some play around and explore before writing anything in, etc.

So far, my students are finishing the book 1 at the pace of 6-7 months along with other assignments they’re working on.  They’ve learned how to read and write a simple music, along with the importance of dynamics and articulations.  They’ve acquired a skill to recognise melodic/rhythmic patterns and their repetitions in music.

I look forward to reporting on Alphabet Book 2 soon!

Alphabet Song Book 3 is now available from my website shop!

For the past months, I’ve been experimenting with a new way of improving sight-reading for my students preparing for the ABRSM piano exam (Grade 1 to 5 levels in particular). Some have an innate ability to sight-read without so much difficulties (except in tricky keys and rhythms) and some have a tendency of freezing up as soon as there comes a point where they have to play the two lines simultaneously. To overcome common problems associated with sight-reading, I’ve decided to give it a completely new approach where it doesn’t involve note reading but it involves understanding of keys, metres, rhythmic patterns & melodic composition and harmony. I call it an “improvisation” approach. This approach seems to stimulate the parts of the brain, which tends to be less exercised in other approaches I’ve tried and improve the overall eye-ear-hand coordination required to become better at sight-reading.

Here’s my new improvisation approach I’ve been testing with my students using Paul Harris’ Improving Your Sight-Reading (for piano) series:

  1. Pick a rhythmic exercise to use as a base for improvisation

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, Stage 4 Rhythmic Exercises]

Rhythmic Exercise from Paul Harris' book

  1. Let the student decide which key they wish to practise in; some will choose the easiest key; some will choose the one that they feel they need to practise the most. Have the student play one octave scale in the chosen key to check all the scale notes (hands separately). Now, set the right hand position for 5-finger pattern (scale note: 1 to 5).


  1. Now, look at the chosen rhythmic exercise, and create a random melody following the given rhythms. The right hand plays the top rhythm using 5 notes whilst the left hand plays the tonic note of the chosen key on every beat. It’s likely that those who are new to improvisation exercise tend to play lots of repeated notes and change the note here and there or play too many wide intervals, which usually result in an unmusical tune.


Ways to experiment in your improvisation exercise:
Make sure your eyes are always following the rhythms on the staves throughout the exercises!

Idea-1. Try playing a scale up and down following the given rhythms without repeating any note consecutively. The last note should be the tonic note (for now). If the tonic note seems to come earlier than you’d like, make a detour (going around the tonic note) so that the exercise ends on the tonic note. Likewise, if there’re one or two too many notes before reaching the tonic note, skip a note or two so that you can end the exercise on the tonic note:



Idea-2. Recognise any repeated or similar pattern in the rhythms. For those patterns, you could play the same notes in the same order:



Idea-3. Use a mixture of steps and skips but no wide intervals (for now). Many tunes that you can easily sing/hum often consist of stepwise motion (consecutive intervals of 2nd) with occasional skip(s) (interval of 3rd):



Idea-4. Experiment with the direction of the melody line to create contrasting ideas. For example, one pattern going down-up-up-down and then the second pattern going up-down-down-up.:



Idea-5. Be inventive using an economical compositional technique, sequence. For example, in the first bar, play the first four notes in an ascending form, then one step down. Then repeat this idea for the second bar but starting on one note higher. You could add the 7th note of the scale (note one below the tonic note) for creating an effective ending. You could also change the note value of the LH pattern; holding each note twice as longer ( LH pattern1 ); or combination of the two note values (e.g.  LH pattern2  ). Each change introduced will help increase your ear-eye-hand coordination:



Idea-6. When you become comfortable with improvising within the 5-finger position, it’s time to extend your horizon a little bit. Try using one octave scale notes and introduce some repeated notes. For example, for the first two bars, use the top part of the scale (scale note: 4 to 8), and then for the following 2 bars, use the bottom part of the scale (scale note 1 to 5). Always remember to use the fingerings that you’ve learned from your scale practice. (e.g. know when to bring the third finger over the thumb, so that you won’t run out of the fingers to complete the phrase):



Idea-7. Change the LH pattern to Tonic-Dominant note played alternately on every beat. This increases the attention you’d need to pay for both hands. Keep reminding yourself of the order of the notes in the LH whilst improvising with your right hand:



Other LH patterns to experiment:

  • Alberti bass following I-V7 chord sequence
  • Tonic & Dominant 7th chords in a blocked form
  • I-IV-V7-I chord sequence in a form of blocked chord or broken chord



N.B. In 3/4 time, you could try Tonic-Dominant-Dominant pattern. Another notch up to increase your eye-ear-hand coordination here!

When all the experiments seems to come naturally under your fingers, it’s time to swap the task between the hands! Now, RH plays the beat notes whilst LH plays improvisation.



For whatever you do in your improvisation, always aim to create a musical phrase; a phrase you’d be able to sing naturally so that the music doesn’t sound like a collection of notes being played randomly without a sense of direction, and if you can add dynamics to shape the melody line. Also, you could try different tempi if you feel ready.

When you get used to improvise in your chosen key, it’s time to delve into as many sight-reading exercises written in the same key as possible.


What to look for in the score before you start sight-reading:

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, p.15]


Sight-reading excerpt_grade2_p15-1

  1. Check the key signature and time signature and decide how fast your beat speed is going to be according to the tempo description (e.g. Andante) or character description (e.g. lively) if there is one.


  1. Pattern analysis: rhythms, melodic shapes, repetition (sequence, etc.), any tricky rhythms that you’re not sure about? (–> find out how these rhythm fits within the beats).

Melodic shapes

LH: Starting on the tonic note, play a 4 note-scale down to A (the lowest note in this exercise); two half notes (minims) per bar and then going back up to the E (the highest note in this exercise) by going through a sequence of 3-note scale, and then ends with the tonic note.

RH: Starting on the tonic note, a short motif ( 3-note motif ) is played and its repeated in the next bar, with slight different filling notes (first motif is followed by A-E, second by E only). It ends with the tonic-dominant-tonic pattern.

As you analise the patterns, try singing the notes as you quietly play them along. Make sure you take into account other details such as dynamics and articulation at this stage. If there are fingerings written in, try to follow them as well.

  1. Identify which hand part seems to have less notes and less movements? Loosely memorise such patterns so that you can focus on the other hand part that has got more notes and movement.

Do you remember how you managed to focus on getting the two lines going simultaneously when you did the improvisation exercise? Keep the easier part (LH) in the back of your mind as you focus on the more trickier part (RH).


  1. Before playing the exercise with both hands, see if you can sing the RH melody as you quietly play the LH melody. This helps you see/hear the two lines horizontally as well as vertically. Always be aware of the point where both hands come together. If there’s a gap in the music, clearly visualise where the beginning of each beat is, so you won’t loose counting.


  1. When the preparation is finally done, play the exercise once without stopping, no matter what happens. If you have to improvise a few notes around the mistake, go for it! It’s better than going back to fix it and loose the flow of the music. Sight-reading is about following the music without loosing the beat, playing as many correct notes as possible and playing them as musically as possible.


You may think there’re an awful lot of things to do/think about before playing a short exercise just once but the most important part is preparation. Just like anything else, be it DIY, sewing, planting, plumbing; getting the preparation work done properly makes the actual job go much smoother than going straight into it without any preparation.

Happy sight-reading!

I’ve been asked by one of my 8 years old pupils’ mother yesterday; ‘I wonder when my son starts learning to read music. He seems to be frustrated because he can’t read yet. He’s so keen and wants to do more.’ He only started piano lesson 2 months ago and he’s learned a few pieces and etudes, and during the holiday he enjoyed playing a Christmas song with a harmony in the left hand. Off to a good start, without needing to read notes to learn pieces, so he can focus on getting his ear-eye-hand coordination sorted and ready to tackle an intricate task of decoding notation later on.

Coordination doesn’t just mean moving fingers and putting the hands together. It also includes the ability to ‘hear’ what you’re playing or what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play, to ‘understand’ high and low in sound in relation to up and down of the keyboard, to be able to ‘sing or hum’ the melody line while you’re playing to maintain steady pulse, to learn to sing or hum rhythmic patterns while you’re playing so that you’re aware of rhythmic values in music, to ‘transfer’ the information that your eye took in to your finger work, etc. When pupils have gained such coordination first, they usually find their way not to get frustrated when they start learning to read notation. So, to my view, a couple pages to cover how to read notation as you find in most conventional piano tutor books seems not sufficient enough. A lot more careful and considerate preparations leading to reading notation seems necessary and more sensible. With anything else, ‘internalising’ takes time and effort.

To compare how we learn to speak and read your language, it may sound much clearer. Did you start to read a book before you speak your language? Did you start learning to read before you can write a few words? When you read, do you read letter by letter to form a word? And finally, can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

In reading music, the same can be said, I believe. If your mind is trained to recognise patterns in relation to how they sound, guessing work can kick in and you can focus on executing the sound on your instrument. For this reason, I usually introduce to my pupils an interval reading technique, rhythmic reading/writing exercises and a few landmark notes writing exercises in the early stage of learning, while they learn to acquire coordination skill to be able to ‘hear’, ‘sing’ and ‘play’, so when it comes to reading music to learn pieces, they know what to do. They take in rhythmic values properly, they can maintain steady pulse while they play, they can play in an ensemble setting, etc, and they can eventually become independent learners.

Back to this 8 years old pupil of mine, he’s already done quite a bit of preparations to start reading notation very soon. He just doesn’t realise that they’re part the course and that he’s already acquired some reading skill to read music! He’ll soon no doubt find out he can actually read music 😉

As I briefly mentioned in PART II, I’d like to explore more about pattern recognition (visual) in relation to executing them on an instrument (kinaesthetic). Though, another invaluable skill not to be forgotten is to be able to ‘hear’ in your mind what you see (aural). To explain what I mean, I’d like to give you a simple example here before I move onto focusing on visual and kinaesthetic combination exercise, hopefully in my next post!

Here’s a very simple tune that everyone knows. Some may have recognised it instantly just by letting your eye run through these 4 bars quickly. Those who don’t read music, here’s what you can try.

a tune everyone knows

1. Learn to sing the rhythm with steady pulse you can detect from singing these patterns; you’ll find that it usually occurs naturally! (See my past post dated on January 26, 2012 at 4. Understanding rhythm, about the rhythmic syllable you can use to sing)

-Bar 1: short-short-long_______
-Bar 2: short-short-long_______
-Bar 3: short-short-short-short
-Bar 4: twice as long_________

2. Recognise the direction of the notes (See Part II, about how to recognise intervals)

-Is it staying the same?
-Is it going up a step or skip?
-Is it going down a skip or double skip?
-Is it going stepwise, up or down?

3. Now try adding various pitches following the direction of the notes (It may be helpful to use your hand showing going up or down to guide your voice visually).

-When it goes up a skip, raise your voice pitch a bit higher.
-When you see a big drop (a double skip here!), lower your voice pitch down slightly more than a bit.
-When you see a stepwise motion, simply try singing the scale up or down.

4. Try singing that way a couple of times with correct rhythms (An important bit! – correct notes with wrong rhythms would make a well-known tune virtually unrecognisable!) to see if you ‘hear’ a recognizable tune.

5. If you still have no luck by now, change your rhythmic syllable singing to just humming but with correct rhythm. Or even without looking at the music if you managed to memorise the melodic shapes by now (It often helps you focus better on listening when you take visual distraction away!).

Now, can you guess what the tune is? Also, an important thing to remember here is to let your ear have an ‘attentive’ listening while you’re singing; how the pitch moves up and down. ‘Isn’t that obvious?’, you may say. But you’ll be surprised to realise that you hear a few details that you previously didn’t when you bring more attention to your own singing. This obvious skill we have, ‘listening’, tend to get pushed aside even more when it comes to playing an instrument because your mind is so busy with getting your finger work right. It’s the very reason why it’s important to train your ear to know ‘what to listen for’.

For those who just started reading the notations, try not to use your instrument to work out what the tune is. Try to figure it out by singing! Being able to creating an aural map in your mind and to be able to sing it before transferring that to your fingers to execute what’s written on the score is probably the most useful skill to develop if you’re serious about getting better at sight-reading. When you develop this skill, you’ll find that you start mixing with some guessing work to get the music going without any break, which is essentially what the sight-reading is all about; being able to play it through with some sense of musical directions with less mistakes as possible!

Once you trained your eye to differentiate between line notes and space notes (see my previous post about how to learn to sight-read), the next stage is to deepen the understanding how a series of notes on the stave correspond to the movement of them on the instrument you play. But before you start playing them on your chosen instrument, there’re a few more things to do away from your instrument. It’s to recognise whether the next note is going higher or lower than the one before, then how much higher or lower? Before going into the detail of interval (distance between two notes), I usually start with a simple writing game with my young learners. You don’t need to have knowledge of intervals at this point. I simply ask them to write:

1. A line note anywhere you like on the stave
What can you see-writing drill-1
2. Another line note a little bit higher than that
What can you see-writing drill-2
3. Another line note higher than that (that’s where you start using your imagination as you go outside the 5-line stave zone!)
What can you see-writing drill-3
4. A space note higher than that.
What can you see-writing drill-4
5. Another space note a tiny bit lower than that
What can you see-writing drill-5
6. A line note massively lower than that!
What can you see-writing drill-6
7. A space note a tiny bit lower than that without going away from the stave.
What can you see-writing drill-7
8. A line note a lot lower than that.
What can you see-writing drill-8
9. A space note higher than that but still away from the stave.
What can you see-writing drill-9-1
10. Now join all the notes to see what sort of shape appears!
What can you see-writing drill-9
Often, I ask little ones to come up with a title for the shape that appears. The best one I had so far was ‘The Bottom of the Sea’! This game is a first step for the learners to look for shapes in written notations in the music. So, it’s not a pointless exercise at all in my view. It also encourages them to use their imagination they don’t often get to use in learning the rudiments of music.

This writing game encourages the learners to apply what they already know from the previous line/space note recognition game I introduced in PART I where they saw notes with ledger lines to go higher/lower pass the 5-line stave area. No explanation is required because they’re already aware what the ledger line does in practice!

Along side this writing exercise, I also introduce the concept of going up a step or down and a skip up or down on the piano, like a staircase. Then, transfer that onto a paper to show what it looks like on the stave. It looks something like this:

Musical Staircase-steps

Tracing over the staircase under the notes can usually guide learners to grasp how notes are going up on the stave related to how they’re going up on the keyboard. Using the knowledge they already have, I ask them to colour only line (or space) notes. Colouring reveals a pattern of stepwise/skipwise motion on the stave:

Musical Staircase-steps coloured

Stepwise motion is always alternating between line and space note
Skipwise motion is either space notes only or line notes only

N.B. Free download worksheets are available.

You can apply that on the keyboard (white keys only to start with) and do a few games related to step/skip to reinforce the understanding of the concept of these two intervals. ‘Doing’ always seems more meaningful than verbal explanation, and most of all, you can save time!

Obviously, these types of exercises and games I mentioned above are overlapping with introducing how to learn to read notation. At the time of working on these concepts, my students don’t have music to learn from notation just yet but they have a plenty of tunes to play by rote or ear. That’s another thing, without being comfortable with an instrument of your choice to play a few tunes well, you’ll probably struggle to get better at sight-reading as well. So, it’s important that your playing skill is there before start working on sight-reading!

In the meantime, why not try to see if you can train your eye to ‘catch’ quickly stepwise/skipwise motions in the printed music. And play them on your instrument to work out how that feels under your fingers?

In PART III, I’d like to explore more about pattern recognition (visual) in relation to executing them on the instrument (kinaesthetic). Though, another invaluable skill not to be forgotten to develop is being able to ‘hear’ in your mind what you see (aural). This skill only comes in time when you learned and played enough repertoire and you have a wide range of melodic and harmonic shapes in your aural vocabulary so that some ‘guessing work’ comes into play. This is a topic I can talk about in another time in length.

First of all, the obvious question is what sight-reading really is.

It is a skill where you play or sing as many correct notes with rhythmic values as possible without loosing the undergoing pulse and deliver some sort of musical sense from a written music score you haven’t seen before.

Suppose you’re given a new piece of written music, if you start reading by identifying each individual note and ignoring the rhythmic value, that’s not sight-reading. That act belongs to the process of ‘learning the notes’. Then what does sight-reading actually involve? In sight-reading, you don’t have time to learn the individual notes before you play what’s written. Sight-reading skill depends on how quickly your brain can process the patterns you see on the score into certain hand/arm movements, which are picked up by fingers. So, the first thing you need to do is to change the way you see the series of notes at a time. I say, ‘pattern recognition’ is the first and the most important elements in developing sight-reading skill.

So, what does pattern recognition mean? It’s basically recognising the distances (or intervals, in a technical term) between a series of notes. But to get there, firstly you need to be able to clearly ‘recognise’ whether the note you see on the stave is either a space note (a note sits between 2 lines on the stave, or dangles down from a line, or sit on a line) or a line note (a line goes through a note) as quick as you can.

You could start by picking up any written music you have and test your quick recognition skill. Let’s say, let your eye pick and follow only the line notes from the beginning to the end of the music. You don’t need to identify the name of the notes, just recognise the pattern of the note. Does your eye follow the line of notes smoothly without stopping? If not, no worries. It’s just that your brain is not used to process the information in a new way yet. All you need to do is to train it by doing this drill over and over until you get used it, and then you eventually speed up quite significantly. This sort of game-orientated drill is very useful. (Dr. Kawashima might call it, ‘sight-training’!) It doesn’t take much of your mind strength, so you can do it even when you’re tired. In fact, it actually wakes up your mind, as you’d notice. For that reason, I often do a similar drill game with my very young pupils. So, in my teaching practise, sight-reading skill building begins after a couple lessons in before they can even read music! I have this set of cards (about 25) I made which look like this:

line-space notes

What do you see here? Some cards have one note; line or space note. Some have two notes; only line or space notes. Or both.

As an example, here’s how I do with my young pupils:

Stage 1
I hold the cards, and show one card at a time and let them ‘say’ which kind it is, line or space note. (To start with, I use the cards that have only one note, then two notes of the same kind mixed in later on)

Stage 2
Now pupils hold the cards and place them one by one into 2 groups onto the floor, one side is for the line notes only, the other for the space notes. For the first time, saying which kind it is (this is to check if they say what they meant, sometimes brain thinks the right thing but it comes out wrong) and the second time, without saying which kind it is as they place each card onto the floor. Remembering to put the cards in the correct places as they go along is another organising skill, which is worth developing.

Stage 3
I mix in another kind of cards, which have both line and space notes. I call these cards ‘odd one out’. And do the same drill as in Stage 1 & 2. In making the card into 3 groups, I ask them to put the ‘odd one outs’ in the middle. And when they get better at it, I time it with a stopwatch to show how quickly they can finish the game. This definitely brings their focus level up and usually speed up significantly!

This game-orientated drill seems like a trivial process but it’s actually helping to develop a reflex movement of muscles linked to visual input. That’s one of the very basic elements you need to possess to be able to sight-read efficiently.

In part II, I’m going to talk about the next stage of learning how to sight-read, ‘recognising the intervals’. Still no real ‘reading’ (naming the notes) involved there yet!