Bridging the Gap from Off-Staff to On-Staff Notation

By Gail Fischler

We, music teachers, are experts at crafting creative lessons that bring concepts and skills to life for our students. But, what if we aren't in the same room during a lesson? And, what if the student is a young beginner? Our teaching skills can be sorely tested by either one of those things. Combined? Oh boy…

When young students are learning to negotiate the musical staff, I have to be at 100% plus. I want all my students to really experience the staff as a graph. Why? Because matching individual pitches might work in the beginning, but ultimately it is just too slow and laborious a process.

A successful sight-reader, even a beginning one, figures out the name of the starting pitch. Then, except for large leaps they use relative position, direction, and shapes to actually read with fluency.  We need both the ability to associate notes with their staff positions and an understanding of how our musical graph works to read music successfully.

Some students make this connection effortlessly. But, many do not. Problems may show up years later and never be diagnosed correctly. From the first reading experience, I strive to set the stage for students to understand and manipulate the musical staff (aka compose).

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The Music Tree series uses first one and then multiple line reading as a bridge to successful reading. I found that it just wasn't enough preparation for many students. So, I began to supplement with my own short one-line activities. Then we moved on two lines and finally three. At first, I used a sheet of paper with one or more lines drawn on it. We drew pitches as shapes, animals, or smiley faces. Eventually, I started handing out partial sheets of stickers.

Still, some students struggled. So, I decided to begin as soon as they understood the musical alphabet even though they were still doing pre-reading pieces without note names. Sometimes I even taught the alphabet earlier than it was introduced in the book through games and puzzles. It really worked. Some students were champs in a few weeks and others took a few months but they all got there. Moving from pre-reading to reading on five lines became seamless and friendly. And, the best part? It works no matter what approach you are using—Middle C, Multi-Key (Penta-scale), Intervallic, or a mix of several.

When I began sharing my teaching tools with other teachers, one of the first tools I shared was a fancier version of this single-line activity. I dubbed my updated activity sheets 1-2-3 Line Read and Play.  There are no clefs on these activity sheets. You decide what the name of the line or lines are. It doesn't really matter which you choose. After all, every letter is a line in either treble or bass at some point. I often let my students choose the name of the line and sometimes we take turns. Through 1-2-3 Line Read and Play, students gain a true understanding of lines and spaces and how the alphabet relates to upper and lower neighbor notes. Then, they are ready to progress to a full five-line music staff and eventually to a grand staff.

I was so pleased when Tonara Educational Consultant Nicole Douglas wanted to discuss 1-2-3 Line Read and Play and the creative ways she uses it. It gave me warm fuzzies that someone I admire and respect so much liked my work. So about a month ago we chatted online and the result is this video. In it, Nicole gives us all lots of creative ideas for using 1-2-3 Line Read and Play remotely complete with demos from within Tonara Studio.

You can find 1-2-3 Line Read and Play and all my teaching tools at The Fistful of Notes Store by Gail Fischler on Teachers Pay Teachers. It is available singly and in bundles.

You can read more of my writings on piano teaching and playing on my blog, Piano Addict.