In our technological age of students learning by Youtube and playing by ear, many do not see the value in learning basic music notes. It is only when they want to progress and play more complex pieces or can't find a tutorial video for a piece that they come unstuck.
I have lost count of the number of times a student has asked if I have the music for 'Fur Elise', only to look horrified when I give them exactly what they asked for.
'But miss, I can't read that!'
'Well, that's the music you asked for. What were you expecting?'
Of course, being the patient teacher that I am [ahem, clears throat] I then carefully write in the notes for them, without any irritation showing at all in my face and knowing, deep down, that I will still only ever hear the first 9 notes and that section B will never, ever, get a look in.
Anyway, I digress! Teaching clefs and notes is a vital and very basic part of music education. Just as students cannot access English Literature without knowledge of the English language, they cannot get the fullest musical experience without any idea of how notation works.
I would never expect a class of 30 to be fluent notation readers by the end of year 7 but I would expect them to understand how to work out pitches and how to follow the shape of written music. Here are some of the ways we achieve this.
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So, first of all, establish what it is you feel your students need to understand in order to be able to read pitch notation. For me it is the following 5:
What are the lines, and how is their meaning changed by the clef symbols?
Understand that note heads can be placed between the lines or covering the lines and their tails go either way.
Know that the higher the notes on the stave, the higher the pitch and therefore lower = lower. Teaching them to read the shape of the melody as well as the individual notes.
You cannot just randomly spray dots around the lines. Everything has meaning and therefore you must be accurate.
What happens when you run out of staff?
So here are 6 simple activities that have worked well for me to teach students pitch.
Active learning is always a great way to make a potentially dry topic into something more interesting and Floor Staff never fails to deliver. Simply mark up a staff on the floor with masking tape across the room so that it is big enough for at least half your class to stand along. Then test their knowledge of notation by shouting out letters - you can specify line or space too - and getting them to stand in the right place.
You could play competitively, getting students 'out', or put them in groups and get them to spell out words such as 'cabbage' along the stave. Or you could pair them up and test each other independently along the stave.
If your room is not big enough why not take it outside and use the lines of the running track?
A huge thanks to Mr Morley for the insanely good treat that is the Learn Notation Song. I have never experienced a class that didn't love this. As well as fantastic audio, the visuals really aid students' understanding of lines and spaces.
They are old but they are good -
Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit and FACE are staples of learning spaces and lines. But you could launch a competition to create some new ones, or make them specific to a class.
I have had the pleasure of Every Green Bogey Deserves Flicking (thank you year 7) and Evelyn Goes By Dom's Flat (a treat from a year 11 class once, the origins of which I did not question...)
I also like to extend FACE to the surrounding notes of D and G':
Don't Forget A Crow Eats Grapes
Students will never learn if you do everything for them, so make working out notation a regular part of their lessons. Laminate your music sheets and have a supply of whiteboard pens. Those students who can read the notes can get on with playing, whilst those who aren't sure can spend 5-10 minutes writing in some prompt notes first. At the end of the lesson wipe it clean ready for the next class.
This makes a great starter or plenary. Give students laminated sheets with pitch names on it and a whiteboard pen. Make sure students have different cards like you would in Bingo. Draw pitches on your staveboard. Students have to correctly identify the pitch and cross it off their card. First one with a full house wins.
This is great for helping students to understand the different registers of the same pitch name. Give a card pile of different pitches and have them match up all the As, Bs, Cs etc through different clefs and registers. You can turn this into a listening activity too; play excerpts of different singers or music and match them up to the appropriate clef or choose 3 pitches that they could perform. So, for instance, if you played a bass singer, they would select the bass clef and 3 bass notes.