Teaching Note Reading Skills with Flashcards
Notes by Brent Hugh
These notes are part of our Piano Pedagogy curriculum.
Assistant Professor of Piano
Missouri Western State College Department of Music
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Why use flashcards?
Best way to build speed in note recognition
Can concentrate on certain notes as necessary
All notes on grand staff represented (Some notes--for instance, inner leger lines--appear in student's music less often. Student will learn these less well unless some kind if additional practice is given.)
Flashcards are different each time around. This forces the student to really read the note, not simply rely on context and memory, as they often do when playing pieces.
How to practice with flashcards
The main purpose of practicing with flashcards is to build a strong connection in the student's mind between the visual appearance of the written note and the location of the note on the piano keyboard/the sound of the note. Learning the name of the note can be helpful in this process, but is clearly of secondary importance.
Flash the card
Student plays the note on the piano
Student says name of the note
Practice landmark notes (learn landmarks as presented in the method the student is using, or, for example: Low C, Bass C, Middle C, Treble C, High C, then add Low F, Bass F, Treble G, High G . . . Start with just two or three cards; add more cards one by one as the student masters the previous cards.)
Practice landmark notes plus notes a 2nd and 3rd above/below the landmark.
Practice within certain hand positions (C position, G Position, F position, Middle C position). Have student place hands in the specified position before starting.
Practice in actual hand positions found in pieces the student is playing now, or will be learning soon.
Practice treble clef space notes, treble clef line notes, bass clef space notes, bass clef line notes (teach mnemonic devices for these--at first remind and encourage the student to use the mnemonic device; later encourage them to just remember the without the intervening slowdown of the mnemonic device)
Practice all bass clef notes, all treble clef notes, then all grand staff notes
Practice bass clef lower leger lines, bass clef upper leger lines, treble clef lower leger lines, treble clef upper leger lines (again, you may introduce mnemonic devices at first, then wean the student from them)
Line up a series of cards on the music stand; play them from left to right
Line up 2-6 cards in one hand position. Student plays them in rhythm, at the tempo you specify. (Encourages student to read notes in context as groups, instead of note-by-note)
Line up 2-6 cards in one hand position followed by 2-6 in a different position. Encourage student to analyze where the hand positions are and where the shift in position is. Then have the student play the sequence in the rhythm and tempo you specify.
Put mistakes or slow answers aside to practice a second time
Time the student playing X flashcards. Set a definite goal time to reach by next lesson. Make a reward if the student reaches the goal.
Count number of right vs. wrong in a set. Again, set a definite accuracy goal for the student with a reward if the goal is reached.
Flashcards with metronome. Four counts per note. Gradually increase metronome speed/reduce number of counts per note. Goal: 1 flashcard per second with 100% accuracy.
Flash the card; student names the note (without playing it). This is not as good as "Basic Practice" but still helpful. Student can practice in the car while driving to piano lessons or students can flash cards to each other in group lessons.
Students can play the answer notes
- in a certain position (C position or G Position)
- with a certain specified finger (always 2nd finger)
- with whatever finger is handy
Each of these encourages the student to think in a slightly different way. This is good--try them all.
- Play in pentachord positions (Db position, Eb position, A position, etc.). Flashcards are all "naturals", but the student is imagining a the correct key signature for that position.
- Give the student a key signature to play in. For instance, tell the student "Key of D major". Now the student must remember to play F# and C# whenever F and C appear.
Practical teaching considerations
Assign flashcards to be purchased just as any other book or material is.
Make sure that student's flashcards show a Grand Staff (Bass & Treble Clefs, as in most student music). If flashcards show bass clef only (for bass clef notes) or treble clef only (for treble clef notes) the flashcards will look radically different from the student's actual music. The student will have a lot of difficulty making the connection between flashcards and real music. (Students will often come back from the music store with the "wrong" kind of flashcards; you may want to buy them for the student to prevent this problem.)
Generally, be aware of what is coming up in the student's books and keep the student ahead in flashcards of where the student is in the book. For instance, if using "C Position" type method books, introduce and start practicing C Position flashcards while the student is still practicing "pre-staff" pieces in the book. By the time the student plays a piece in C position with grand staff notation, the student has been practicing those flashcards for perhaps a month or more. Introduce and practice G position flashcards a month or more before the student reaches G position pieces in the method book.
Similarly, if your method book uses "landmark" notes, introduce upcoming landmarks (and surrounding notes) with your flashcards weeks before they appear in the book.
- Make the connection for the student between flashcard practice and real music reading. Often students will play flashcards easily, then fumble around for the very same notes when they appear in "real" music. Remind the student to think of the same thing while playing real music as they thought while practicing flashcards.
- It can save time in sorting the flashcards if you mark all treble clef, bass clef, C position, G Position cards, and so on. Just put small abbreviations in one corner of the card (preferably on the back). With the groups of flashcards marked, students can easily sort for different positions themselves.
- Student will be much more likely to practice the assignment if the cards to practice each week are sorted at the lesson. Most flashcard packets have different rubber bands to keep various sets of cards separate.
- Students will pick up on the most amazing (and to you, almost unnoticeable) details on the flashcards so they can get the correct answer without reading the actual note. Examples: Turned corners, small pencil marks, accidental ink splotches. Keep an eye out for this (watch the student's eyes to observe where they look as they read the note). Erase stray spots. Make students play from your deck of flashcards (different from the one they practice on at home) at lessons. Remind students of what they are supposed to be looking at (the line or space the note head is on).
- You can easily make your own specialized flashcards using a computerized music notation program.
- Students get tired and bored of flashcards after a while. Give them a rest from flashcards for a few weeks or even months. But then bring back the flashcards at a higher skill level (require faster responses, different positions, more notes, different notes).
- Make flashcards into a fun and challenging game and students will enjoy them a lot more.
- Your end goal is for the student to be able to play all grand staff notes (including leger lines) at the rate of one note per second or better, with very high accuracy. This is a long-term project!
Other note reading aids
Note flashcards are good, but so are:
- Interval flashcards (harmonic and melodic):
- Play and name the specified interval
- Play and name the specified interval starting with a given note (regardless of the actual notes on the flashcard)
- Diatonic intervals (2nd, 3rd, 4th . . . ) first; later chromatic intervals (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, . . . )
- Key signature flashcards:
- Name major key and/or minor key
- Play major and/or minor scale in that key
- Play simple chord progression (for example, I-V7-I) in that key
- Chord flashcards (root position, inversions, various positions and voicings)
- Flashcards for musical terms and signs
- Rite-way Note Finder. Plastic note on a string that you move up & down on the grand staff. Kids love it. Available at most music stores.
- Note spellers. Note spellers teach only one specific aspect of note reading (identifying the written note with its name) but are still very useful as one part of your comprehensive teaching approach to note reading. The better note spellers (available at most any music dealer) help break up the drudgery of learning notes by turning note reading exercises into a variety of fun written games and puzzles. Students can do them in the car or while waiting for their lesson.
- Computerized note-reading games. These, like flashcards, are very good because they encourage fast responses to the written note. Also, kids seem to be fascinated with anything computer-related, no matter how lame it may be in reality. The best computer programs are those that present the written note(s) and require an instant response on a midi keyboard. Next best are those requiring the intervening (and musically irrelevant) step of mouse clicks or computer keyboard buttons for the student response.