Teaching music reading

November 4, 2006 at 04:32 PM · When I started teaching my 7-yo daughter violin this fall I thought that one advantage would be that I could teach her to read music. I thought she would like that better than the playing-by-ear Suzuki method. She's a good reader in school; she enjoys it and is reading above grade level.

Last year when I broached the subject with her Suzuki teacher, the teacher recommended the Suzuki "I can Read Music" book, so I bought that and we're trying to continue to work through it.

She's doing okay with that book, but her progress is slow. We're only on Lesson 3, rhythm (each lesson has pitch and rhythm components).

I think she has more trouble with rhythm than pitch. Sometimes she gets stuck at one end of the bow or the other and gets confused and distracted and forgets about the rhythm altogether, or alters it so she can get back to a part of the bow that's more comfortable for her.

She seems to be able to recognize half notes, quarter notes, and whole notes, but then translating that recognition to what comes out of the instrument is not quite working.

When I ask her to clap or sing the rhythm instead of playing it, she balks.

I'm also trying to teach her the D string. All of her Suzuki songs were on the A string in the key of A major. We started with a D major scale, which she plays quite well. And she wanted to learn two songs on the D string, "Do a Deer," and "Make New Friends" from Girl Scouts. I wrote these out for her, Do a Deer starting on D and Make New Friends starting on G (3 on D). She's still having a lot of trouble reading them, even after 2 and 1 weeks of practicing, respectively. I write the fingerings above the notes and she plays the right finger on the wrong string.

When this happens, she gets discouraged, because it sounds really weird and unrecognizable. I don't think she's really reading the notes, just the fingerings. Should I try some more organized teaching of music reading? FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine?

I think I'm being patient enough; I don't get exasperated or anything, but she is not very patient with herself. When she does it wrong she gets upset and doesn't want to do it again.

I'm starting to worry about the dreaded BAD HABITS that I am instilling again and bracing myself for a tongue-lashing from the music teacher next year.

Should I just keep plugging away in the Suzuki book and hope it eventually sinks in?

Replies (17)

November 4, 2006 at 05:01 PM · Hi Karen,

Along with assigned pieces,

my beginner students write their own songs. I give them staff paper with the measures marked, and I give them specific tasks (e.g. all the open strings, plus 1st finger E on the D st., all quarter notes).

I draw each of the assigned notes on the bottom of the page so they have a model to copy. After they write their song, they have to practice it. Naming the song seems to be VERY important!

The kids seem to get a big kick out of doing this, and it seems to help.

November 5, 2006 at 01:53 AM · Though it's probably little comfort I'm 45 and just now starting to 'get it' with reading.

What helped me was when I realized that sight reading is not neccessarily some streaming flow of notes through the eyes onto the fingerboard, but many skills including generalization, reading ahead, recognizing patterns and so forth.

And musicians in general memorize the music, so reading (though in an ideal world this is not true), only have to learn to read well enough to be able to reach their goals in the music they are learning as a worse case scenario. But that doesn't really get at where you are going with this.

Some of the things I do is, not to over-emphasize the reading. Then I routinely spend a little time reading the notes out loud as I press them on the fingerboard. And as I play along (I use Suzuki too), I 'very often' look at both the finger number and the note--or whenever I find myself reverting to the numbers, sort of make myself also look at the notes.

You might also start by focusing on the notes within the staff from g below middle c to only 'f' on the staff or maybe 'g' above the staff, at first getting a feeling for where the open strings occur on the staff, and then start filling in the rest.

I did a google search for the following search phrases:

qualities of good sight reading (and)

10 tips for good sight reading

both in quotes, looking for a specific article I read a long time ago. I think close to what I had in mind can be found here:


Still, do the searches, and teach yourself the level of importance or lack of in this--you aren't so alone... al

November 5, 2006 at 03:35 AM · Like Albert, I started late. I could barely read at all until one day I sat down and worked out the finger patterns (i.e. whole and semi-tones) for every key in every position (there are only 7 variations actually, across all 4 strings). Some more experienced amateurs avoid 2nd position and there are groans of 'oh, it's got 4 sharps!' when we look at a new piece. When I say 'but it's E major, all the same patterns as 3 flats E flat major', they don't really believe me. Or even 5 flats! Just D flat major - the same patterns as D major. And 2nd position in D, say, all the same patterns as 1st position in C. Etc.

This is an unconventional method, which makes me wonder if I'm doing something 'wrong', and of course one has to look out carefully for accidentals that indicate a key change, minor key or dischord, but it has at has made me really aware of those things.

Well, my friends think I'm a bit weird, but I really couldn't get by before I worked the finger patterns out. Also, I focus more on the intervals than on individual notes. So I might think, right I'll play this section in 3rd position, which is finger pattern X, and here's a 4th, so I go from 2nd finger up to 1st finger on the next string' etc. Happens faster than that, of course.

Then I spent hours holding the violin banjo style (to remove the complication of bowing), just reading and plucking through lots of pieces.

So I wonder whether focusing on finger patterns and intervals would help, as well as putting the bow aside while reading something new?

November 5, 2006 at 06:33 AM · Clapping rhythms is great, if you can trick her into that. Another method that greatly helped a number of my students and also my six-year-old son is "Music Mind Games" by Michiko Yurko. I have the "Level One: Blue Jello Cards." The idea is to assign words to various rhythms and drill them. A quarter note is "blue." Two eighth notes are "jello." Four sixteenths are "huckleberry." An eighth with two sixteenths is "goose berry," the reverse is "berry goose." You can throw some "rest" beats in there, too. The cards each have five beats worth of rhythms; some as simple as quarter notes, some with mostly blue berries and berry-blues, some with just blue-jello, some with a combination of different rhythms.

This helps in a way that is not clapping (though you could clap along!) but also not with violin hand. Sounds like she needs some separate rhythm work!

November 5, 2006 at 07:40 AM · Perhaps you've communicated a sense of your expectations to her. Perhaps the part of you which thinks "She's only doing XYZ and it's been X amount of time" and "I think I'm patient with her" has instilled her with a degree of perfectionism/fear of failure/fear of embarassment.

Sometimes in a parent-child situation you can't sidestep dynamics which already exist in the relationship, sometimes the only way to avoid the impact of those dynamics is to change them.

If your daughter is affected by a sense of expectation and fear of failure, perhaps you can find ways of easing her out of that, maybe by making careful changes in how you approach her. Or perhaps it might be good to get her out to another teacher for now so she can establish new patterns.

--Or maybe you just need to break things down further and do things WITH her that she can do, no matter how unbelievably simple they may seem. Laurie's ideas above sound fun. :-)

November 5, 2006 at 04:25 PM · It could be that you are overloading your daughter with too much information.I am not a Suzuki teacher and one of my priorites is to have musicaly literate students right from the start.At first you need to divide rhythm from pitch just as one would divide left hand and right hand technique.Make one note cards of differtent note values and try using rhytmic sol.fa (ta for quarter note ta-a for half note titi for eighth notes excetera.This can then be juggled in any combination either by your daughter or yourself.Start with 2 cards and work on from there building up to measures.A popular game is being the composer and getting children to build up four measure compositions.Pitch is really easy if you start with open strings I have never had a student who couldn't identifiy the four open strings by the second lesson even the very young ones.If you have access to a computer with a music programme print out the notes very large if not you can do them by hand.Add one finger at a time,it goes from space to line and back to space.These become the avenues and streets.Its important that you shouldnt go too quick and present all the lines and spaces in one go.Its completely meanigless to a young child.Once the open strings have been recognised have fun inventing rhythms using those and work on from there.Also sing your compositions.

November 5, 2006 at 07:39 PM · I learnt by FACE and other such mnemonics but I would put it mainlt down to having written on the music where the note is and what it is and just weening off that. Doesn't take long just watch out that they are reading the notes as well as the notation on the notes :-)

But the best thing is exposure to musical otation language and what a scale looks like on paper, not necessarily exact note values (rhythmically yes but pitch no) more the idea of patterns and understanding the vocabulary of music

November 5, 2006 at 07:56 PM · You have had a lot of good suggestions from Laurie and Janet and others. Don't let your expectations of what "she should be ready for" get in the way of what she is ready for.

When you show her how to read songs she already knows by ear, I wouldn't put fingerings in. She needs to understand the direction the notes are going and how this is expressed on the violin. "Up in pitch" is confusing when it sometimes means going closer to your nose,sometimes means going to the right. She also needs to get a feel for the sound of the pitch and where it happens to lie on the violin. Singing is really important, and also movement. With some kids who find rhythm challenging, I use syllables (either solfege or modified Michiko Yurko) and we say the rhythms while tapping the pulse.I also conduct the pulse with some kids.

I have used "I Can Read Music" but I now prefer the William Starr "Adventures in music reading" books. They start with larger notation on the D string and show the finger pattern on the string, the corresponding note on the staff and the note on the keyboard. The beginning lessons have only open and first finger, then add a finger gradually. The initial lessons are all in stepwise motion. Thirds are introduced, and the visual pattern is explored (thirds on two adjacent lines or spaces) so that visual recognition of patterns is established. I usually have my students look at the time signature, count themselves in, and then sing the note names (on pitch) before trying to play each little excerpt. When they can play it fairly fluently, then I ask them to count us in and I play the harmony part that is provided. As the note range becomes bigger, I ask then questions about each excerpt: what is the highest note you see? the lowest? which note is played most often? Sometimes we trace the up and down motion of the notes or look for thirds, fifths before playing. Quarter notes are used in the beginning, then half notes, dotted halfs and 3/4 time. Eighth notes are introduced towards the end of the first book, and by that time they are playing compound rhythms and two line excerpts. Starr also suggests that when they have finished all the upper parts they can then go back and play the harmonies.

I ask my students to try and do one or two lines a day. They enjoy the book and make progress sometimes very slowly, sometimes quickly. Each one has his or her own learning curve and is challenged in some way, perhaps by the rhythms, maybe by the pitch reading But we keep plugging away and doing whatever is neede to compliment what they are working on in the book.

November 6, 2006 at 12:32 AM · I think your concerns are very valid and you are smart to get her reading early on.

She won't be in Suzuki forever unless she ends up being a Suzuki teacher!

Any non-Suzuki teacher and most reasonable Suzuki teachers require reading by late Book 2 and for sure in Book 3 and 4.

I used that book as well with my son who is now 9. He was 6 when we started focusing on note reading with me as the teacher for theory at home. The effort has been been worth any problems we encountered.

He (like many children ) has a great memory. My observation is that the Suzuki requirement to keep everything in short-term memory, gets to be a "habit of mind" for the children afterwhich reading can seem like a bit of a drag for them. Once you start shifting, you have to be reading reasonably well.

In my experiecne the "I can read Music" book was very good theoretically, but not very "satisfing". He just hated it.

In addition to my son's Suzuki lessons, and "I Can Read Music" I bought him Vol 1,2,3 of "Quick Steps to Note Reading" by Rusch and Fink. He loved these little duets. Vol 1 is the A & E String and Vol 2 is D and G. They are little duets, so they really have to pay attention to counting. He really liked it because it was easy and the duets were very satisfying. After every line or two they "get a little song". I played these duets with him. They are easy, but if kids are unskilled at reading, you have to forget about what Suzuki book they are on.

I also had him take "recreational" piano lessons. The graphical nature of a keyboard is an easier leap for some kids. He stuck with it and not really enjoys it and is learning the circle of fifths and intervals.

Also, when she listens to her Suzuki tunes, make her sit with the book and tap on the notes that are being played. Two taps for a 1/2 note etc. This way she learns to track on the page. My boy loved doing this and was pretty good at it. It builds confidence and is a good transition to reading.

November 6, 2006 at 12:56 AM · I start the reading, as in reading and playing, in mid-Book 1. Usually with "I Can Read Music" these days.

November 6, 2006 at 01:15 AM · I absolutely adore the I Can Read Music series, though I think some patterns need to be instilled as well. it's not enough to recognise A B C# D etc.. I pull out FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, as well as a pattern. FACE deals with (to a young beginner, anyway) open strings (or 4th finger when you introduce that) and 2nd finger placement, and EGBDF deals with 1st and 3rd finger placement. spelling this out for the child makes the concept of A1 versus B much easier to grasp if there is a coherent pattern. while more advanced students don't need to think of A1, D3, etc, she is still quite young and needs a bridge between the two to best understand reading music. as for rhythm, i usually teach those components separately, rhythm comes first through familiar songs and circling the "long" and "shorter" notes, then only later introducing quarters, halves, and how that fits into songs. then i can begin the rhythm part of the book.

November 6, 2006 at 02:12 AM · Karen,

I would avoid putting finger numbers above notes. In my mind, that's one of the most unhelpful things in really teaching kids to read notes. This is how I learned and it did not work AT ALL. As I've stated on this website, I couldn't really read notes correctly as an entering freshman in college (really embarrassing as a performance major) and had to use those 4 years to learn how to read properly. PLEASE avoid this!

Susan is right, reading by interval is a wonderful thing. Each note isn't a discreet occurance. You can know what notes are based on what came before. For example, if you see a passage of 16th notes starting on A and ending on A an octave up with no skips, you automaticall know that the passage is A B C# D E F# G# A (depending on your key of course) This is much better than trying to individually recognize each note while playing an instrument. Of course it's good to know the notes and practice with note cards or Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge or something like that, but it's definately not sufficient. It's not how we think when we actually play. We see intervals and play them. If I see a 4th, I know exactly what to do, regardless of what position I'm in, string I'm on, etc.

Also, in first position, I use the "rule" of even and odd numbers fingers to help narrow down the choices. Spaces are even numbers - 2s, 4s, and open strings (0s) and lines are odd numbers. This only helps for students who understand what even and odd numbers are of course.

As for rhythm, besides Laurie's wonderful suggestion of Music Mind Games (the Blue Jello games are GREAT for rhythmic stuff - even my 3 and 4 year old students like them) it sounds like your daugher needs to understand how correct bow distribution ties to rhythm. Half notes for example are a slower bow speed than quarter notes. If she has trouble staying in the correct part of the bow all the time, not just when reading, this is something she needs to work on before she'll be able to read rhythm correctly. You can also have her try to air bow the rhythms, paying special attention to the bow speed.

I'm sorry if some of this has been said already. I was just glancing at this thread and haven't had a chance to see what everyone else has written yet. I'm sure there are lots of other good ideas too. I think I'll go read them now....

Anyway, the most important is that reading is presented as fun. You want to avoid any sense of panic or "i'm not good at this." Those attitudes can last years. If you start to encounter them, slow down, take a step back, and try something even easier. Each step should be small enough that kids can be successful after 2 or 3 tries.


November 6, 2006 at 02:13 AM · Anne,

I love your idea of having kids write and learn their own songs!

Laurie, I agree with you. I have my students start reading and playing "I Can Read Music" around Perpetual Motion. I start reading games with pretwinkle kids. I'm glad to hear other Suzuki teachers don't think I'm crazy or not a true Suzuki teacher!


November 6, 2006 at 08:28 AM · I strongly recommend Adventures in Music Reading by William Starr. It's easy enough to be accessible and rewarding, and it progresses from easy to hard in small steps. It is written as duets for two violins, and that has benefits, too. Something especially important about it is that all my students think it's fun.

November 6, 2006 at 08:56 AM · I also have my students write their own pieces of music, but I have them use Finale Notepad, and I sometimes get a lot more than I bargained for. One of my students, a first grader, wrote a two page composition for B flat trumpet, tuba, and organ. It has what he calls "thirteenth notes" and some very interesting chords. Now I have to revise it so that it can be played on the violin and so that it has a melody, unless, of course, I can pass it off as avant garde contemporary music.

November 6, 2006 at 12:01 PM · Thank you all! This is exactly what I needed. The Starr book sounds perfect, because her favorite thing to do in our "lessons" is to play duets with me from the Suzuki book (I have the 2nd part; it's the only violin I play these days because my own practicing is all on viola right now), and she responds well to fun games . . . it's also possible that she feels some lingering ill-will towards the "I Can Read Music" book because she associates it with her teacher from last year whom she didn't like. I'm still feeling somewhat badly about that, that I didn't recognize until quite late that she was as intimidated by her teacher as she was. She still mentions it occasionally that her teacher was "mean" and "yelled at her" and made her cry. My plan is that next year she will take lessons again with a teacher who isn't me. Last summer she was almost ready to quit, and this year her attitude overall is much better. She does have to somehow learn to be less sensitive if she is going to survive and thrive in any kind of performance situation, but I'm leaving that be for now, hoping that some success and fun will help her grow out of it (I didn't grow out of it until I was 27 . . . hopefully it won't take her that long).

And I think she will also love writing her own music. I have Finale, I used it to write out Star Lullaby from the Wiggles a while back, but not for Do a Deer and and Make New Friends. She really enjoys playing on the computer and this will be something that she can do in her computer time that's better than Barbie.com or Americangirl.com. In spite of having done it myself, having my daughter do it at this age would have never occurred to me on my own without you suggesting it. This is a wonderful resource, thanks again!


November 9, 2006 at 12:28 AM · Karen,

So many of the response you have received are spot-on. I have a music school and we teach note-reading from the beginning; we separate playing, note-reading, and rhythm-reading exercises for quite a while. One of our kids' favorite activities (in a group class setting) is "Simon Says" played on the floor with long lines (representing the staff) of masking tape. The game progresses over several weeks from initially numbering the lines ("Simon says stand on the 2nd line") to identifying spaces (FACE) and then lines ("Stand on the B line...if you moved, you're out! Simon didn't say!"). We repeat the games a few times so they really get the hang of it by the end of class. Another game we play when the kids have gotten a little better at identifying the lines/spaces is a race to the note (To begin, we work on space notes only). The kids line up behind the first line and race to the note (first one to get there scores a point...first to five wins that round). You can also effectively teach steps and skips (reading by intervals) this way. A little healthy competition seems to motivate the kids and we've got youngsters (5-6-7) fluently reading G clef and F clef, regardless of their instrument.

While "Simon says" works best for groups, I've got kids who beg for me to play it with them by themselves. If that doesn't sound like it is going to help, then check out Music Ace by Harmonic Vision. It is an outstanding music program for computer that kids who can read readily enjoy.

Good Luck,


This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases



Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins


Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine