By E. L. Lancaster
The materials used in piano lessons for young students (ages 4–6) tend to be much less performance-oriented than those used with average-age beginners (ages 7–9). Young children should experience a variety of music activities that provide a general introduction to music. Any repertoire performed at the piano must take into account the small hands of the child. Most four- and five-year olds cannot play three-note chords or music with many independent voices split between the hands. In general, the introduction to notation and staff reading should follow activities that allow students to respond to music and learn about keyboard topography.
At the same time, the activities in lessons for young children need to change frequently due to their limited attention spans. They do not sit and listen to long verbal explanations. Physical activity (moving and responding to music) is an important part of learning. To a great extent, learning depends on imitation, and demonstration is very important in the lesson. “Hands on” experiences are more important than verbal explanations. With these characteristics in mind, teachers need to move from activity to activity about every three minutes. That does not mean that one cannot return to the same activity within the lesson since repetition is important in the learning process.
In the Music Lesson Books of Music for Little Mozarts, students are introduced to musical concepts and performance pieces at the piano. The other core books help add variety to the lesson with activities that are done away from the keyboard. The Music Workbooks reinforce concepts with pages for children to color. They also focus on the training and development of ear. The Music Discovery Books include singing, listening, and movement activities. Included in the books are songs to sing for fun, motion songs to introduce musical responses to music, songs to reinforce specific rhythm patterns, and songs to aid in the development of musical expressiveness.
The newest books in the Music for Little Mozarts series are the Notespeller & Sight Play Books. Each page of the books has two activities – a written activity and a playing example. The written activity reinforces notes on the keyboard and the staff through coloring, circling, drawing, or matching. The sight-play examples help students:
- Relate notes and musical concepts to performance on the keyboard.
- Move out of fixed hand positions.
- Identify melodic and rhythm patterns.
Both of the activities in these books lay a foundation for developing strong reading skills. They provide systematic instruction and reinforcement of reading principles while helping students understand the concepts that are essential to being a secure music reader. Becoming a good sight-reader takes an extended period of time, but elements presented in these books are of prime importance in establishing the skills needed for this long-range development.
The remainder of this article will highlight some of the important concepts and skills necessary to become a good reader by examining a page from each of the levels of the Music for Little Mozarts Notespeller & Sight-Play Books. Before students encounter notation on the staff, they must be totally comfortable with finding keys on the keyboard.The written example on page 13 of Book 1 (see Example 1) asks the student to color keys on the keyboard, helping to develop the skill of finding keys quickly.
The Sight-Play section on this page contains two examples. The examples use exactly the same notes, but are played with different fingerings. This helps student realize that any key can be played with any finger.
One of the early keys to good reading is the ability to recognize steps and skips both on the keyboard and on the staff. On page 23 of Book 2, students are working with identifying skips on the staff and naming the notes in each skip.The Sight-Play example at the bottom of the page applies this to a short two-measure reading example (see Example 2).
One of the most difficult tasks when reading music is reading notes in two clefs simultaneously. In Music Lesson Book 3 of Music for Little Mozarts, hands-together playing is introduced. The written examples at the top of page 24 in Notespeller & Sight-Play Book 3 (see Example 3) ask the student to name a different note in each clef and circle the correct answer. The Sight-Play example has the same left-hand note throughout the entire example while the right-hand notes change. This allows the student to focus on the coordination necessary to execute the music at the piano with minimal reading challenges.
Identifying patterns, both rhythmic and melodic, is essential to the continued development of reading skills. The written examples on page 30 of Book 4 (see Example 4) require students to identify five-finger patterns by name. The Sight-Play at the bottom of the page gives them two beats of rest to change to a new location on the keyboard within a specified amount of time.
Each lesson for young students should include a short amount of time devoted to “practicing” sight reading skills in a systematic way. The Notespeller & Sight Play Books provide a solid structure to allow this practicing to happen within the lesson time. At the same time, it moves the student to and from the piano bench providing the necessary change of activities to keep young students truly involved – happy sight reading!
Dr. E. L. Lancaster is Executive Editor, Piano, at Alfred Music. He holds degrees from Murray (KY) State University, the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Dr. Lancaster has served as National Chairman of Group Piano and National Chairman of Student Chapters for MTNA. He has held offices in the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy, including Chair of the Administration/Pedagogy Liaison Committee, and has received numerous teaching awards. Dr. Lancaster has presented workshops for teachers throughout the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. He is the author or co-author of more than 350 publications designed for students of all ages.