Reader Question: Reading intervals vs. note naming

If you teach interval reading, how do students become fluent at note- naming?

There was a general consensus in our meeting that teaching students to read by intervals, instead of mentally naming each note, is an effective way to help students become fluent readers.  Tracy Grandy pointed out that in the forward to “ABC Papers ” (published in 1947), Frances Clark wrote of her goal to promote fluency in reading groups of notes.  What happens when students do not see patterns of notes, but just read each individual note, without seeing the relationship between the notes?  Reading can be labored and sluggish.  Students who read this way can also tend to reverse the clefs (for example reading Bass F as “D”).  Some methods stress a positional approach to reading.  Our experience is that students who learn to read by positions have difficulty “believing” that finger 2 can play middle C, or finger 3 can play Treble G.  In other words, the “positional” approach doesn’t always transfer to the “real world” of music reading, where any finger can play any note.

Though there are many benefits to the intervallic approach to reading, teachers who have explored this approach may find that students take too long in finding starting notes of pieces.  Typically, intervallic methods teach “landmark” notes first, and subsequent notes relate to these landmarks.    The students may find the landmark notes quickly, but then take more time with non-landmark notes.


Some helpful ideas:

1)     First, we must manage expectations.  Parents and teachers may need a dose of patience.  It takes time to become fluent in note-reading.  This will not happen instantly.   Our eventual goal will be for students to be able to play each note, without thinking about its relationship to the landmark, but this takes time and experience.


2)     Second, a “no-fishing zone: ”   Students must start with hands in lap, think about the starting notes, and go directly to position.  “Fishing” for notes, without thinking first, leads to insecurity.


3)  Third, in-lesson drills can be so helpful.  Some students develop quick note-recognition without drills, but in-lesson note-identification activities can be so helpful.  In fact, we have found that in many cases, students will not even need to use note-identification drills outside of the lesson if weekly reinforcement is provided in the private lesson.  Marvin Blickenstaff uses 37 flashcards each week, timed at each lesson.  At first, the student must state the “official” name of the note:  “Treble G, down a second, F.”  Emily Lau builds a library of flashcards right from the start.  First, the only flashcards will be the landmarks.  Each time new notes are introduced, the student adds these notes to their flashcard library.  Students write the “answers” of each flashcard on the back,  under the supervision of the teacher.  This activity is shown in the video below:

Another flashcard activity that Amy Glennon recently used in group class at the American Boychoir School:  Students were given flashcards of landmarks and 2nds away from landmarks.  Each student placed his card on a table in order from lowest to highest.  Students then chanted the names of each card with 3 seconds inbetween, 2, 1, and “zero.”  Next, the cards were scrambled and students repeated the activity.  In addition to flashcards, very short sight-playing examples put these notes into context.  “Reading Flashes” can be spread out on the music rack.  An example of a reading flash would be just 4 notes, Treble G, A, B, A.  Students play each short example.  Next, the teacher can mix up the order of the cards and the student will play each card again, with just 4 pulses between each example.


The faculty also discussed a common stumbling block when teaching the intervallic method.  When students enter the early-intermediate level, they learn that  intervals within the hand are not always played with the expected fingers.  For example, a third might need to be played with fingers 1 and 2, instead of fingers 1 and 3, or that a 4th is played with fingers 1 and 3.  An exploration of why these alternate fingers are used in the context of the piece will be helpful.  Also, the “take a trip” activity (C up a 3rd, down a 2nd, etc.) can be modified to include more unusual fingerings:   “Thumb on G, start, up a 5th with finger 4…”  Reading flashes with these irregular fingerings will help the student get used to this new look and feel.  Some good examples of this idea can be found in Four Star Sight Reading (Berlin/Markow, Frederick Harris Music).


Finally, it is easy to forget how very much is involved in music reading.  There are a lot of “moving parts” involved in reading music.  Patience and persistence will yield good results, as long as we continue to reinforce note recognition skill at each lesson.

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