Many years ago, I was asked to teach a group of children, nine and ten years of age to play the cello. To begin with, I taught them to play well known songs by ear until they had developed a solid technique. They had free school meals, which in those days entitled them to receive free access to group music lessons and musical instruments. One day, I announced that we were going to learn to read musical notation. The colour drained from their faces. They were agitated, anxious and horrified by this idea.
“No!” they protested. “It’s too hard.”
“After all these lessons, do you really think I would allow you to struggle?” I asked them.
The following week, I introduced the group to very simple notation and developed a system that would allow them to retain the name of each note with ease, promoting reading fluency right from the start. This system is now an integral part of a reading intervention called the Rhythm for Reading programme. It was first developed for these children, who according to their class teacher, were unable to focus their attention and learning with the rest of the class.
After only five minutes, the children were delighted to discover that reading musical notation was not difficult after all.
“I can do it!” shrieked the most excitable child again and again and there was a wonderful atmosphere of triumph in the room that day.
After six months, the entire group had developed a repertoire of pieces that they could play together and as individuals. It was at this point that Ofsted inspected the school. These children were invited to play in full school assembly in the presence of the Ofsted inspection team. They played both as a group and as soloists. Each child announced the title and composer of their chosen piece, played impeccably, took applause by bowing, and then walked with their instrument to the side of the hall. At the end of the assembly the children (who were now working at age expectation in the classroom) were invited to join the school orchestra and sit alongside their more privileged peers. The Ofsted team placed the school in the top category, ‘Outstanding’.
If you would like to learn more about this reading programme, contact me here.
Schools face significant challenges in deciding how best to introduce musical notation into their curriculum. Resources are already stretched. Some pupils are already under strain because they struggle with reading print. The big question is how to integrate musical notation into curriculum planning in a way that empowers children and teachers.
There are tried and tested ways of teaching musical notation which transcend age, and are best suited to pupils who process information with ease. Traditionally, piano teachers begin with mnemonics for the notes that sit on the lines of the stave EGBDF (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) GBDFA (Good Boys Deserve Fun Always) and for the notes that sit on the spaces FACE (Face) and ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass). Many teachers use these mnemonics to introduce a series of line notes and / or space notes all at once.
What about all the children who struggle to process information, reading with ease and fluency?
The tried and tested method of adapting musical notation for children who struggle to process the information, is to add more information!
What’s on earth is going on here?
Music teachers want children to enjoy making music and to have fun producing sounds on their instruments and they hope that in time, reading notation will gradually become familiar and easier to read. Until that point, music teachers add extra information to remind the child of the letter names of the notes. In the same vein, music teachers often add numbers representing the finger patterns, to remind the her how to produce sounds on the instrument.
Soon enough, the page is cluttered with markings and the child has to select which markings to read.
These markings are intended as a quick fix, aiming to keep the child engaged, but she inevitably becomes reliant on the letters, or the numbers, or both. This approach sets the child up to fail in the sense that she does not learn to read notation at all and believes that it is too difficult for her.
What could teachers do differently to support children who do not process information with ease and fluency?
A more inclusive approach would limit the cognitive load on children’s reading - which is what we do in the Rhythm for Reading Programme. Rather than teaching all the notes at once, we focus on just a few notes and develop fluency and fun in reading right form the start. Instead of learning musical notes at the same time as playing musical instruments, which adds to the cognitive load, we simply use our feet, our hands and our voices as we believe these are our most natural musical instruments.
Group learning in a structured programme supports the development of fluency, because the children are nurtured by the ethos of working together. Teamwork in combination with rhythm is an effective way to build fluency in reading acts as a catalyst on progress.
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The teaching and learning of musical notation has become a hot new topic since its appearance in the Ofsted Inspection Framework published in July 2022.
For too long, musical notation has been associated with middle class privilege, and yet, if we look at historical photographs of colliery bands, miners would read music every week at their brass band rehearsals. Reading musical notation is deeply embedded in the industrial cultural roots.
As a researcher I’ve met many primary school children from all backgrounds who wanted to learn to read music and I’ve also met many teachers who thought that reading music was too complicated to be taught in the classroom.This is not true at all! As teachers already know the children in their class and how to meet their learning needs, I believe that they are best placed to teach musical notation.
There are many perceived problems associated with teaching musical notation in English primary schools, and a top one is that many teachers do not read music. It is so easy to address this issue. Using the techniques of the Rhythm for Reading Programme, I can teach a room full of teachers to read music fluently in time with a backing track (think Karaoke) in five minutes. Yes - five minutes!
Empowering school staff to read music also offers a more cost effective and a more inclusive approach than employing a specialist music teacher as an add on.
Classically trained music teachers have leaned towards selectively teaching individual children with a strong working memory, a strong sense of rhythm and agile executive function that can cope with multiple streams of information processing simultaneously. It’s difficult to reconcile this type of expertise with a mixed-ability classroom setting and a group teaching situation.
Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll discuss ways to meet all of these challenges.
Breath is an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. We use our voices as a team in different ways and this engages our breath. In the early stages of the programme we use rapid fire responses to learn the names of musical notes and our breath is short, sharp and strong - just like the sounds of our voices. Even in the first session of the programme we convert our knowledge of musical notes into fluent reading of musical notation and when we do this our breath changes. Instead of individual utterances, we achieve a flowing coherent stream of note names and our breath flows across the length of the musical phrase for approximately six seconds. This time window of between five and seven seconds is a universal in human cultures. Did you know that the majority of poems are organised rhythmically into meaningful units of between five and seven seconds in duration?
A long slow exhalation is associated with calming the nervous system, even though the energy in the Rhythm for Reading session is playful and the sense of teamwork is energising. The unity between the children and teachers taking part in the programme fosters a sense of belonging which further boosts well-being alongside the calming effect of the long slow exhale.
When I first meet teachers, they often share that they feel anxious about reading musical notation, but one of the most beneficial aspects of taking part, is that our long slow exhale as a group is actually an effective way to sooth anxiety. The smiles at the end of the first musical phrase show a powerful release of emotional tension through the unity of rhythm and breath.
The phonics wars raged back in the days leading up to the publication of the 2006 Rose Review. The value of synthetic versus analytical phonics was a key educational debate of the decade. At that time, the fragile readers that I was working with as part of my PhD, struggled to decode a simple C-V-C word (consonant-vowel-consonant) such as ‘cat’. I was glad that all children would be taught systematically to recognise letter-to-sound correspondence, as well as drilled in the smallest sounds of language. It was unacceptable to me at that time that a simple three letter word such as ‘c-a-t’ was a new concept for some children at nine years of age.
Below the radar of the mainstream media, music educators were digging deeply into their own entrenched positions around the teaching of musical notation. Unfortunately, these ideologies and their false narratives have limited access to musical knowledge. Decoding musical notes (like any other form of reading) opens up access to participation in a multicultural global community - in the case of music - of performers, listeners and composers who engage across ever-expanding musical genres. Music educators’ ideologies have limited access to creative opportunities.
Most children start school with thousands of words and hundreds of melodies in their heads. Yet, in schools and music studios, one of the most limiting and perhaps most misunderstood ideologies stemming from high profile music educators, is that of ‘sound before symbol’. Music teachers have been told for decades that best practice involves singing and naming the shapes of tunes using doh, re, mi. Only when the tune has been learned ‘by ear’, are the visual symbols introduced. The idea that a sound must be taught before introducing a symbol to represent it, has a certain logic, which quickly becomes redundant as soon as we acknowledge that sound does not need to be taught. Sound is processed incredibly rapidly in the auditory system and was the first of our sensory processing systems to reach full maturity in utero.
Ofsted’s July 2022 publication supports moving away from the principle of sound before symbol and recommends a stronger commitment to the teaching of musical notation as a part of a broad and balanced curriculum. In the teaching of reading, automated phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence is the key to the rapid development of fluency. Indeed this usually involves presenting the sound with the symbol using rapid response multi-sensory teaching methods. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we teach sound with symbol correspondence using a rapid response multi-sensory approach to musical notation and therefore prioritise fluency as the overriding goal.
Get in touch by visiting the contacts page if you would like to boost reading fluency in a ten-week period and gain the additional benefit of teaching every child to read musical notation fluently in the very first session of the programme.