By Grace Lee and Lou Ann Pope
I’m continuously fascinated by the countless numbers of teachers all over the world making brave and creative transitions to keep music education going in people’s lives.
What this past season has revealed to me, among many things, is that we need to be able to shift gears swiftly when the unexpected happens - you know, when a student breaks her arm just hours before her lesson, when the babysitter calls in sick and you have a 2-year old crying when your 3:00 student arrives, or when a massive Pandemic strikes the world by storm. (Okay, that one is pretty extreme).
Since many of us are now teaching in a hybrid fashion (online and in-person), I’d like to share some fresh ways we can promote sight-reading skills, in particular, using two wonderful practice tools: Note Quest and Tonara, including activities that can easily be used both ways, online and in person.
What are your biggest struggles when it comes to teaching sight-reading?
I recently received survey responses from over 20 teachers. Their responses were honest and insightful. In summary, here are their top responses:
“I don’t have time.”
“I don’t have the right material on hand, and neither do my students.”
“My beginners struggle with note reading (especially on Zoom) and it’s holding us back.”
“My students don’t always use the materials/flashcards I send home.”
“My students dread sight reading.”
Good news! All these issues can be helped fairly easily. Let’s tackle some of them here.
I don’t have time.
This was by far the top response. Let’s face it. As musicians, we know what a valuable skill it is to be able to take a fresh piece of music and bring it to life on the violin or the piano at first sight, especially in an ensemble. Too often, we run out of time and it gets pushed until next week, and then the next...
Sight-reading is a skill that must be taught separately and practiced regularly. Without putting in at least bits of time for regular sight-reading, your students may remain stuck, more or less, at their current sight-reading level, even as they mature musically. However, there is something that can help cut the time and organizational chaos of digging through books and cards to find the right one every time:
Note Quest is a simple, but extremely versatile flashcard app (iOS) for note recognition & sight-reading. With a clean, no-fuss design that’s ideal for all learning types, the app is divided into two main sections: Note Class, with a unique focus on Landmarks and intervals, and NoteFit, its newest addition for sight-reading. Note Quest is a pedagogy-packed, easy-to-use tool that anyone can use. We’ll talk in more detail about its features shortly.
Use Note Class for your beginners. Landmark Note levels are in the FREE download and are a must-have for beginning readers! Save time printing, laminating, storing, or sharing cards. Note Class responds to sound, so it promotes independent practice at home. Then, the Pro levels include the single notes & intervals for additional practice with levels that grow with the students’ skill levels.
Note Selector is a teacher favorite. Customize your own game! Select your notes from the virtual keyboard, and they immediately appear up on the staff in real time! This could be a fun activity for students to learn keyboard to staff connections. Then, name and save your level for play anytime!
Some sets I’ve made include: Space Notes, Line Notes, 5-finger scales, and Blues scales.
Keeping track of my sight-reading books and materials.
Teachers are a busy bunch. It’s not easy to organize perfectly-leveled sight-reading materials for each student. With flashcards & books in my lending library, personally, I’ve had my materials damaged, lost, and even - yes, eaten by a dog. (Am I the only one?)
I’ve seen posts of teachers with towering stacks of books on the floor and piano by the end of an online teaching day. Do you identify with this? The best solution, at least for this cause: Go paperless. Use apps.
The Assignment Trackers (PDF) make it easy to track and measure the progress of your students’ practice. In the New York Times’ best-seller, Measure What Matters, John Doerr asserts that the key to getting results is measuring & tracking progress. Generally prescribing practice “whenever you have time” will not likely yield the same results.
You’d be surprised how much students’ note and sight-reading improve when practiced between lessons! NoteFit provides pre-leveled sight-reading exercises, which make it easy to teach in any setting. Its built-in listen feature prompts the student to use her own ears to check her own accuracy.
Seasoned piano teacher and Creative Education Specialist for Tonara, Lou Ann Pope provides a great video example of how this plays out in a lesson: Click here.
Put Fun Back Into Sight-Reading
To increase motivation, the app rewards daily practice with fun badge earnings and rewards. After the user earns five badges through practice, the app unlocks a prize, including coloring pages from The Playful Piano, or free sheet music, like one from Dennis Alexander. Since the app tracks badges and provides rewards, teachers don’t have to. One less thing for you to do! Check.
In addition, in the practice of sight-reading, students must learn to “play through” mistakes without stopping at every error. This “play through” skill requires a keen awareness of meter and rhythm, so they can continue in time. Please remember, this requires a complete paradigm shift for young musicians who are used to stopping and fixing mistakes. Playing with the recording really helps strengthen this mindset. This is also a coveted skill to have when they play in ensemble settings.
Watch this video that features an Intermediate level student. See how he’s learned to play through errors to keep time.
“My beginners struggle with note reading... On Zoom, it’s even harder.”
Short term solution: Drill individual notes.
Long term solution: Learn intervals.
Try the Interval Maze Game: This little activity requires no apps or props, and is great for warm-ups. Have your student start on a designated key (say, Middle D). Call out intervals, such as “up a 2nd”, then “down a 4th,” etc. through several rounds until the last interval leads back to the original note. You could easily turn this into an ear training or singing game for double the benefit!
There are tons of fun flashcard apps out there, but only Note Quest has a unique emphasis on intervals, which are undoubtedly the building blocks for reading music. I like to introduce intervals by ear and then connect it to staff notation. Even for beginners, I often introduce intervals as soon as possible. Yes, we must learn individual notes first, but sticking to single notes too long may hinder your student’s reading growth. It’s much like children learning alphabet letters for a year without learning sight words - it’s not in their best interest in terms of reading.
Respected piano educator Daiane Raatz from Brazil, shared a clip of her using Note Quest with two students via Zoom. She cleverly has the second student call out the intervals as she plays it, promoting verbal as well as musical understanding:
NoteFit flashcards in PDF Format are now available for use on any device, including Android users and those who want to screen share! The great news is that the cards are perfectly aligned with the app, so they can be used in any combination that works best between student and teacher. Either format for sight-reading can be practiced with Tonara, adding another fun way to add points to the leaderboard!
How To Assign Sight-Reading Inside Tonara:
Now, here’s what many of you want to know! How do I assign sight-reading with my Tonara students? Watch and learn how Lou Ann easily assigns Note Quest inside Tonara.
As a musician-educator, one of the things I love about NoteFit is that the excerpts are not randomized notes on a page - the excerpts are composed music exercises and excerpts, which was important to me. Beneath the surface, NoteFit can also encourage skills like transposing, improvisation, and pattern-based composing starters, while gaining exposure to the works of wonderful living composers. It’s not just a sight-reading app. There are many creative possibilities as well.
As you know, we have some powerful and engaging tools on our side to help us be the best that we can be, but ultimately these tools don’t do the work. We do. We are responsible for helping curate learning experiences for our students, which inspires what we do.
**Special thanks to Lou Ann Pope for her valuable contributions to this guest post.
Grace H. Lee (B.M., M.A.) is a piano teacher and the Founder of Note Quest, one of the fastest-growing apps focused on sight-reading music. She is one of the few female app founders bridging the worlds of tech and education.