Book/Activity Suggestions for Teaching Young Violin Student struggling to read music

March 31, 2021, 6:27 AM · Hello All,
I am looking for advice and suggestions for teaching one of my younger students to read music, but also to successfully associate the music notes she reads with her violin. Currently she uses A1, A2, A3, E1, E2 etc. to refer to notes. I am a big advocate of learning to read music early and calling the notes by their note names from an early age instead of using finger numbers. It makes for much less confusion when you begin shifting and playing in new keys with High 2's or Low 1s etc.
With that said, with this particular student it has been quite a struggle to create the association of letter names with fingers and then also to read music notes.
We have tried flash cards, a "hand chart", playing and singing - but it hasn't seemed to click for her. I am thinking that a tangible study book that she can write and draw in and complete activities might help, but can't narrow it down! Any good activity books for treble clef only?!
*Another aspect that is making this difficult is that this student takes virtual lessons with me. Although her mother is helpful and attentive during the lessons - even if I send sheet music as pdf for her to practice, they don't have easy access to printer so often the mother writes it out as finger names (A1, A2, A3 etc) so she practices "reading" her songs this way.
Thanks in advance for any help :) Kirsten Williams, Oxford, UK

Replies (9)

March 31, 2021, 7:43 AM · I would suggest the early Avsharian books. My daughter struggled with note reading, primarily due to vision issues, and she not only learned a lot from these books, but also loved them! I think we started with ABC Notespeller 1 and 2. Fun with Notes has stickers. Once she finished those, we did the Songs for Little Players series (3 books), which is more notation or sight reading oriented.
March 31, 2021, 9:25 AM · I love the "I Can Read Music" books by Joanne Martin, as they add new note incrementally and focus on patterns that involve only the known notes. Another favorite of my students is the "Blue book of Violin Tunes, alpha notation" by Bonnie Greene (http://www.oneworldstrings.com/violin.php) as it has the names of the notes INSIDE the notation and is much more musical than the ICRM books. I usually work them side by side so that students can start recognizing the notes with and without the note names, especially if we're working on referring to the names and not the finger numbers.
March 31, 2021, 10:16 AM · How old is "young"? Sometimes it just works out as they gain more life and learning experience.

First, a tangent on finger-number-referring. Instead of "A1", I say "1 on A" or "1 on A which is B" depending on context. I do Suzuki, so there is an element of students having greater comfort and familiarity in playing/hearing/feeling something than naming it, especially in book 1 (before shifting and low 1's). If it taxes their mental capacity, I'm fine with delaying naming while focusing on basic physical skills. Generally, non-musician parents follow my lead while musician parents persist in A1 A2 A3 for longer. I tell them it has to be gone by book 1 Etude in G major, but we can't cut it off right at that point and need to start weaning earlier. I also have some different names for 2 instead of "high 2" and "low 2" but this is not relevant for the beginning reader.

I go into all that to point out that by the time I start students on reading, they are on an intentional path of reducing finger number reliance, so that we don't have "reading finger numbers" holding them back from "reading notes", but they aren't necessarily quick about knowing what everything is called.

The first book we use is Pattern Play for Strings, a 3-book series written by a teacher with Suzuki and Kodaly background, which starts melodic reading on a 2-line staff (tetrachord on each string 012^3 or 01^23) and focuses on patterns of same, stepping, and skipping notes. This bypasses note naming, going straight from "the melodic pattern looks like this" to "it feels/sounds like this", because the material is meant for "sight" reading rather than "deciphering" (translating each staff note to a letter name and then to a finger on a string). Of course, you eventually get faster with the latter by doing it more, but I prefer emphasizing application over knowledge. For example, some students learn FACE and EGBD elsewhere, which doesn't help for actual playing, as you know!

Before starting reading, reading finger numbers is fair game if they are trying to learn a special occasion piece quickly or something. Once they are committing to starting reading, there is no more playing from an excessively marked up part and definitely no finger numbers and note names in the reading book or it defeats the purpose. (They would have to use other material for practicing writing in finger numbers and note names.)

Pattern Play, as evidenced by the name, doesn't reinforce naming and identification of single notes, so we do separate activities for that.

To associate note name with finger on string: say and play D major and G major scales. Circle locations on fingerboard chart and write in note names (this is for vocabulary and approximate finger spacing): https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VuY2qC3Pu5pXPLGfxS4ogUoXHo857Gkf/view?usp=sharing (I really should update this because I say "back 1" instead of "low 1" now - but most students are no longer using the fingerboard chart by the time they are dealing regularly in low 1's)
To learn note names on staff: first check identifying "line note" and "space note" (not that a note is "on a space" or "on a line"). Locate and write 3 G's, 2 D's, 3 A's, 2 E's (which also relates to ringing note intonation) using a large print staff: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qH6Qz2yyCqwAghjC74GRJ3Hn-pYRPUxk/view?usp=sharing
On the fingerboard chart, they find 3 G's, 3 D's, 4 A's, 3 E's, and eventually someone will realize there are more fingerboard locations because of 4th finger.

For these worksheets, they use them in dry erase pockets for easy erasing and re-writing, eliminating the need to frequently print out new copies. I don't deal with practical application of key signatures and accidentals until later, but they learn by rote early on that G major's sharp is "Fried" and D major's sharps are "Fried Chicken".

Something we started only because of being online is regular group reading practice. We use the above materials so they all have the same physical things in hand. It's more guided and interactive than doing a workbook, which may be effective for other people's students but hasn't been for mine! They also have small magnetic dry erase boards taped with staff lines, on which they can use magnets for notes or write them directly. Another option is coins on a paper (have the parent draw suitably-spaced lines). Using manipulatives bypasses obstacles that may arise from handwriting control, which is less of an issue as they get older.

March 31, 2021, 2:10 PM · I still think the music school I got lessons from as a kid had it right: They demanded that kids take a year of "solf├Ęge" before starting on an instrument. It was not scary: Just the names of the notes, their values and their position in the staff; the organization of the piano keyboard; major and minor scales; major and minor keys; intervals; rhythmic reading of music (we were reading the note names out loud--do, re, mi--in rhythm while beating the measure with our hand) plus a little ear training.

This makes it really easy to start on violin: All you have to add to the above is how the strings are tuned and which finger produces which note on each string. From there all your effort can go into violinistic stuff.

April 2, 2021, 10:57 AM ·
LESS is MORE. Do less talking, less explaining, less extra note exercises, less note names and numbers above notes..etc.... Do more repeating of a piece, with looking at notes and without looking at notation, and repeating with eyes closed. More playing, less talking. 'No looking at the fingers while reading notes'.
April 2, 2021, 11:56 AM · How young? Age perforce limits what you can explain. (I developed an appreciation of the things that Suzuki teachers of tots cope with when I realized that without a concept of fractions, an instruction like "use half the bow" doesn't make sense. I had to teach my son basic fractions so we could talk about bow usage without needing to use a zillion pieces of colored tape on the bow.)

My son is five, doing Suzuki, been playing for a bit over a year, working on Gossec Gavotte, and still cannot seem to grasp music-reading concepts despite being a totally fluent reader of books (though he has some vision challenges). Note-reading has been taught off-and-on for the last year. His struggle has made me aware of just how many things have to come together to make music-reading possible.

I have perfect pitch. Association of notes to fingers came intuitively to me. I never had to think about it, and I could learn the Suzuki pieces easily by ear. I grasped the concepts of the instrument's layout and the logic of how that mapped to sequences and intervals without difficulty. Fluently note-reading with the instrument in hand (vs just note identification) took me until sometime in book 2, though, with a teacher who emphasized the skill. But I've been at something of a loss as to how to teach the skill to my son.

His brain doesn't seem to map aural pitches to fingers/strings. (My husband, a former brass player, apparently knows all his notes by what finger each staff note corresponds to; he has zero aural correspondence.) My son has excellent intonation and can easily correct a placement that's too high or too low, yet he can't seem to get the concept that if note #2 is higher than note #1, it's either got to be a higher finger on that string or it has to go up a string.

Given a staff, he can, with painstaking use of FACE, identify the note letter (though this required verbally drilling "what is the next/previous letter in the ABCDEFGA loop). If the notes are each given their own COLOR (as they are in the iPad "Endless" app), he can read them and play them on the violin, no problem -- i.e. he can associate a color with a finger and a string. But he does not seem to be able to remember (at least not without drill) which fingers correspond to which letter of the alphabet. Nor does he seem to have internalized that when two notes are sequential on the staff they use consecutive fingers.

We have "I Can Read Music" and that worked for a page or two until the stems of the B changed direction, and I realized he was focused visually on the A and B stems being in opposite directions, not their placement on the staff.

So I have concluded that I need to somehow get him to grasp the concepts of the logic of the way the violin is laid out (or try to teach this on a piano keyboard instead and then go from there to violin), and tie that to how the staff is laid out.

The Pattern Play book sounds cool. I've been teaching my son the Suzuki pieces essentially by finger-rote, but some patterns have gotten cute animal names and it might be easier to teach note-reading that way.

Edited: April 2, 2021, 1:37 PM · When I was growing up we always had a piano in the house. I can recall sometimes taking my violin music to the piano to work out how it was supposed to sound. I suggest that having a keyboard to help a young student visualize relationships between pitch and placement on the staff. I do not recall having a problem learning to read music - I was still 4 when my violin lessons began.

However, a 5-line staff can be confusing to some people learning to play a 4-string instrument. For a short time I had an adult cello student who never did wrap her mind around the relationship between note placement on the staff and finger placement on the strings. This may have been about 15 years ago. However, it was only earlier this year (2021) that I realized this young woman must have been familiar with Tablature,

( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_notation#Tablature )

which is an instrument-specific way of indicating note placement on the strings of the instrument. Each line of a Tablature staff represents one of the strings. Such notation is often used for such fretted instruments as lyre, lyra, guitar, bass, mandolin and banjo. If I had known the problem back then she might still be playing cello. To remind me of this failure I copied a colorful example of "Tab" notation to keep on my music room wall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablature

April 2, 2021, 4:57 PM · It is going to be very tough dealing with younger pupils using video lessons - my sister is a primary school teacher and had real problems until they could return. And the technology doesn't allow a teacher to play along with the student.

However if you are using Suzuki methods, do use the network of Suzuki teachers for advice. My daughter's teacher (in the UK though not near Oxford) started kids learning note values right from the start through clapping games. In fact because before taking a child on she got them observing group lessons and joining in those aspects they could my daughter started that before she actually picked up a violin. Every individual lesson had a short "quiz" reinforcing note values.

And then about halfway through book 1 (from memory) there was "real" sightreading using material that non-Suzuki learners would use - in this case the "Fiddle Time Joggers" book. That has progressive exercises starting with open strings, coupled with some accompaniment tracks which made them fun for a child to do at home. In my daughter's case she loved those challenges, and progressed fast until she could sightread up to the limit of her technique.

While the online learning problem is one that is out of your control for now, at least by using a suitable published collection (there are others suggested above which are no doubt also good) you can at least ensure the child and her parents have appropriate sheet music.

Edited: April 2, 2021, 5:36 PM · Pattern Play consists of a parent/teacher book and two student books (contents of which are reproduced in the parent/teacher book at reduced scale but young eyes need bigger print). I don't use the teaching book directly myself, instead simply using similar activities in my own way, but the visuals and processes have been very helpful for both musician and non-musician parents. For an older student (8? 9?) I would have them skip it because they would absorb the concepts through exposure in group classes.

I must be the only Suzuki teacher who doesn't use ICRM - exaggerating and I do use it later for some students but it's just that Pattern Play is much more painstaking in its sequence and does a better job of building up the logic "from scratch". There are even sections on stems up and stems down. Pattern Play doesn't cover note names so we do writing on fingerboard chart and staff for the repetition of hearing and using the vocabulary (and using the fingerboard chart in the way that a piano keyboard would be used for visual layout).

In Adventures in Violinland 1B, there are some illustrations/questions/activities related to patterning. 1B uses do-re-mi (open 1 2), 1D adds fa-so (3 4 and crossing to next string), and 1F covers the whole octave. I had some students doing that in their pre-pandemic lessons but did not have them use those books themselves.


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