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Updated: Mar 31, 2022

One of my favorite things as a music teacher is seeing kids develop their note reading skills and unlock new repertoire; that's why I created FableNotes. But we’ve all had students who struggle to read music no matter how we teach, and only few kids can confidently sight read. Music reading can be hard, and here’s what you can do about it.

When you make something easier, it opens up possibilities for lots of new learners. I  realized that difficulties with music reading are keeping large numbers of kids from being able to enjoy playing a musical instrument. Most of the common music reading challenges have to do with a student’s visual perception and eye movement (oculomotor) difficulties. Visual perception is different from what we usually consider to be having good or bad ‘eyesight’. And it doesn’t mean that you need glasses, either. It’s how our brain makes sense of what we see. You might have a student with deficits in those areas and not even know it.

Here are some signs your student’s difficulties reading music might have to do with their visual skills:

They lose their place while glancing between the keys and the music or ask you to point to each note on the music to help them follow along as they play.They have a hard time telling intervals between notes or noticing if the music is ascending or descending.They might forget which side of the staff or instrument is for high notes and which is for low notes.They often try to ‘count’ from a known note every time either on a keyboard or in the music, or rely heavily on mnemonic acronyms like “All Cows Eat Grass.”

If these sound familiar, you might be their music reading hero if you give them a little visual support.

I use FableNotes music literacy resources to help students build a strong visual foundation for note reading. FableNotes uses engaging picture books with adorable music note monsters to teach music notation through stories. I’ve found that kids love the book so much, they want to read it again and again. They don’t even realize they’re actually studying and memorizing all the treble music notation!

When developing FableNotes, I used my training as an occupational therapist and music teacher to make sure music resources are inclusive of students with visual learning disabilities, like dyslexia. FableNotes is illustrated with a visual sense of gravity to reinforce up from down, and always reminds them of spatial relations between the notes. It helps them see intervals and shows the music note monsters interacting based on their visual distances.  The story itself gives readers and teachers a sort of script for reinforcing lots of music literacy concepts clearly and in a way includes kids with all levels of visual skills.

Some kids just need instructions to know where and how to look at music, but it’s not often taught, it’s just expected. Putting the spatial relationships of notes into simple descriptions is a more positive way for them to learn. That way they can use their own learning style and personal strengths, rather than feeling weighed down by their visual weaknesses.

See it through your students’ eyes:

Your students could be struggling with one or more of the many aspects of visual perception, and you might be the first to pinpoint the source of their difficulties. Let’s try to see the world through their eyes to understand how their visual difficulties could impact note reading:

Have you ever had a hard time finding that paperclip that you know is hiding in your junk drawer? It’s obviously a lot harder to find it in a junk drawer rather than on an empty table. That’s because there’s so much to look at and you need to pick out what you’re looking for amongst the busy background, kind of like Where is Waldo. OT’s call that skill figure-ground.  Weaknesses in figure-ground skills could make it as difficult to spot their place in the music as it is to find Waldo in a crowd. Not to mention the fact that it’s a moving target as the song goes on!

Another visual perception skill is called visual discrimination, and it’s your ability to tell the differences between things that you see.  This is especially important for reading rhythm, because of the way it’s represented by different types of music note symbols. Some kids have a hard time seeing the difference between note values, because they may not notice the variations in stem or notehead features.

Remember being in school and trying to copy from the board? You’d glance up, see a word or sentence, then look back to your own paper and write it down using visual sequential memory (quick, before it gets erased!) You had to remember what you saw and hold it in your mind to write the words down in the right order.

Kids have to do this same thing when playing piano, especially beginners who are still learning how to play without staring at their fingers. They read the music, look down, and need to remember the notes they just read in the right order to be able to play them. But sometimes the notes get lost in their memory, which makes it so they can only play one or two notes before having to glance back at the music again, which makes it slower and more difficult to play.

Have you ever tried to make sense of a complicated-looking data chart and felt like you’re not even sure where to begin? You need a high level of visual spatial relations skills to understand data charts. When kids look at music, they see a chart of data that they’re trying to interpret while coordinating the playing of their instrument.  

All pitches are represented spatially, but spatial relations skills are a weakness for many children. Like, for some kids, it can be tricky to “see” the distance or difference between an F in the bottom space and an E in the top space. Various interval distances on different notes may blend together in their minds. Remembering the top and bottom of the staff or which direction to make your eyes look across the page isn’t a given.  How could they focus on playing musically with expression when they’re struggling with all that?

On top of all those visual perception skills, we also have to be able to move our eyeballs with our eye muscles. Think about how musicians might have to glance between the music, their hands, the conductor, and their instrument. Even if they’re just playing alone, they still have to be able to smoothly track their eyes looking across the page from left to right, then jump them to the next line.  That doesn’t come easy for a lot of kids!

What you can do about it:

The problem with most of the ‘tried and true’ music method books is that they don’t take different learning styles into account. Thebooks are too heavy on visual skills for kids with difficulties in that area. That’s why I created FableNotes to break down the most common note-reading challenges, answer common music literacy questions, and prevent reading struggles before they arise. FableNotes makes it easier for parents to support their children’s music education at home and helps them to feel more comfortable the written system of music.

Most music method books usually only show (pretty small) black notes & lines. That would be like if we only taught the alphabet with a small, serif font.  Meanwhile, kids are learn the alphabet by tracing it in play-dough, building letters with blocks, reading books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, singing the alphabet song, playing with alphabet refrigerator magnets, etc. Every kid is offered multisensory education opportunities to make sure they catch all the kids’ unique learning styles. There’s no reason music students shouldn’t have the same varied learning opportunities!  

Another problem is that many parents can’t read music confidently, so they don’t know how to help their kids practice outside of lessons. If music books can only be easily decoded by a music teacher, how could we expect kids to practice on their own?

Music education resources have fallen behind other subjects, and it’s the reason millions of kids are excluded from the joys of music participation. This especially goes for kids with learning disabilities, kids without parents who can help, and kids whose families can’t afford regular music lessons. They end up quitting because they’re stuck in the beginner phase for too long with boring beginner music or falling behind their peers in class, rather than being able to read and play the music that speaks to their souls.

As an occupational therapist, I was trained to solve problems to support participation in any activity. So when I noticed that my piano students all had similar visual causes of their note-reading difficulties, I decided to create a tool that makes music literacy more accessible for everyone. I used the science of how people learn when I was developing FableNotes (because the future of music education deserves more than opinions), and the result is a high-quality, music-learning picture book.  FableNotes also makes it easier for parents without any music training to support their kids music education outside of lessons.

Along with FableNotes, you can use lots of OT-style tricks to support kids’ visual foundation skills while developing note reading skills.

Vision and Note Reading Ideas

Some kids do better when they’re able to see only the part of the music they’re working on. Cover the other parts with a blank paper or even create little window cutouts in a notecard. You can make different size windows for different kids’ needs, depending on how many notes they can handle seeing at one time.   You can also use it to focus the learners who keep trying to go back to play from the beginning or another ‘starting spot,’ relying on muscle memory rather than reading the specific measure you want them to work on. When you’re using window cards, try not to obstruct more than is necessary, though, so that they can start to develop a habit of reading forward in the music.

Play Musical Eye-Spy and hunt for types of notes (like all the middle C’s, or all the half notes), then intervals and rhythmic motifs, triads in root position then triads in various inversions, then lots of different chords. This helps them practice looking through music with purpose and quickly identifying meaning in the notes and phrases.

Make it bigger! Show them very large notes, and I mean like really big. Sometimes kids need to work off sheets that have only one measure per page.  FableNotes uses large notes so they can see the details, understand what they’re looking for, and mark up the page for their own learning, even if they don’t have great pencil control yet! When you’re teaching the details of note-reading, explain how to find the notes using clear words.  FableNotes tools can also help you structure what you say so you can keep it simple, quick, and memorable. Which brings me to the next tip:

Try coloring in the notes in rainbow order starting on C (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink). Use it just as a game to reinforce note names or keep the colors on as training wheels while they work on note reading skills. This also opens up music for younger kids, because music reading isn’t always developmentally appropriate for the youngest learners’ visual development. Then I use the FableNotes workbook to transition kids from reading colored music to confidently playing black and white sheet music.

One of my favorite ways to reinforce music reading uses the whole body! You can mark 5 tape lines on the floor and stand with our feet on a space or line and talk about which note you’re standing on. Sometimes we use a spinner to tell us what note to jump to next.  You can even take that to the next level by turning it into musical twister! (Right hand on B, left foot on F, etc.)

It’s our job as music teachers to bring music to life and to make music fun and accessible for all our students. So many music students feel like failures because their visual weaknesses aren’t being supported as they learn music. We have such a special role in helping our students gain self-confidence, learn important life skills through music, and develop a life-long love of music. Between FableNotes and all these other fun tricks, we have the power to give them exactly what they need to succeed!

I have some unique perspectives when it comes to music instruction, and that’s because after being classically trained as a pianist, I became an OT (school-based occupational therapist). That opened up a new realization that instruments can be taught or played in unconventional ways and for different (but valid) reasons.

As incredible as our brains are, there’s no one part of our brain that was built for reading music. It takes lots of connections between areas all over the brain. When you add playing the instrument at the same time, your head gets a real workout. So many teachers notice that their students have the same problems when they try to read piano music. So what exactly is going on? And more importantly, what can teachers do about it?

Reading music starts just like learning to read words. The first part is being able to name and find all the notes. This is a really important part, but if we had to name every note individually, we’d never become fast sight readers. So that’s where the second part of reading music comes in: understanding the relationships between the notes. When you put it all together, you’re able to accomplish the third part, which is putting meaning behind the notes. You have to know the notes to be able to notice intervals, understand the direction of the melody, and then shape the phrase. So it sounds like three easy steps… but there’s so much that goes into it.

Why is music so hard?

Heads up: there’s some science in this paragraph…  Vision is one of the most important factors in reading music and playing piano. But vision isn’t just whether or not you need glasses. You can have eyeballs in perfect working order, but if your eye muscles or the visual part of the brain isn’t just right, you’ll have a tough time learning to play the traditional way. Visual skills help you do things like read a high E by seeing that it’s in the top space. You might even have to remember the notes you saw long enough to look at keys and play them in the right order (called visual sequential memory). Piano takes a lot of muscle coordination to be able to move just one finger individually (called isolation) or make them all work together. Sometimes your hands have to be doing different things at the same time, which takes lots of hand-eye (called visual motor) and bilateral coordination.

That’s a lot of work! Are you impressed by your students yet? Because I’m in awe of mine every day just knowing how hard their brains are working! When all these skills become automatic, it gets much easier to play with musicality- the ultimate goal. Here is how you can help students develop a foundation so that these skills can become automatic more quickly.

Developing a Music Literacy Foundation:

There are lots of ways to start honing pre-music-literacy skills and an ear for music, but my rule of thumb is to try not to force skills too fast. It’s most important to develop a love and excitement about music first, so put away your timeline and have fun.

1. Listen and explore:

Typically, the first exposure to music is through listening and exploration. This can build a foundation for understanding how music works, especially if learners can be immersed in music from lots of cultures and instruments. Playing around on an instrument or singing is actually a great way to begin music participation (even if it doesn’t sound so great). I also like to turn rhythm into a game by having my students jump on a trampoline, bounce on an exercise ball, swing on a swing, or even just march in place. That way, kids begin to see rhythm in the world all around us.

This is a great stage to introduce music literacy in a playful way. I hate to see teachers and parents drilling music notation flashcards and sucking the life out of music. I introduce music notes the same way we show kids fun alphabet books from an early age, using FableNotes to grow a familiarity and joy surrounding the ideas of music reading. Here Come the High Notes from FableNotes is the first music literacy book that works the same way children’s books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom work. When you read the book to children, they’re captured by the fun characters and find themselves learning each note through the rhyming stories without it ever feeling like work. This makes them even more excited to be a part of that musical world and ready for the next step:

2. Hear and play

Audiation is a key skill for any musician: it is our ability to ‘think’ a song inside our heads without making any actual sounds. This is the heart of truly musical playing, when you crave the piano for no other reason than for the joy of creating music. But like always, I recommend you start small and make it fun. The most common activity for audiation is B-I-N-G-O, where you don’t sing (but continue to think) chunks of the song. (Remember that one? Like, *clap* I-N-G-O”?) You can also sing a favorite song together, and pretend to press mute while you audiate a part of the song, then ‘un-mute’ and see if you’re still singing the same part of the song together. As students become more musically literate, I ask them to audiate how a hard measure should sound first before practicing it. The FableNotes curriculum gives a framework for talking about audiation, because it gives visual imagery for what audiation feels like in the first pages. That can be helpful for kids who have a harder time catching onto abstract concepts.

The last part of developing a strong music literacy foundation is improvising. You can teach the beginnings of improv starting with two keys an octave apart (usually D’s, because those are easiest to find visually). I like to use the orange FableNotes characters (Friendly D and Clever D) for this one, because it makes it easier for them to understand the octaves and get into the improv. I show them how they like to sing to each other by playing alternating low and high D’s with bouncy rhythms, then I ask them to give it a try. While they play around with ‘chatting octaves’ I play chords that go along, and we jam out! You can also teach improv using the black keys, which make a nice pentatonic song. Through improv, they start to understand what it feels and sounds like to play different intervals and rhythms.

Oftentimes, teachers work on all of these foundation skills in order, but having taught piano to kids with disabilities, I’ve found that sometimes you have to break the mold to fit the child. A strong music foundation can look different for those with disabilities or different learning styles.

Audiation and improvisation on an instrument is (basically) coming up with musical thoughts. And they play a big part in helping a musician to fully understand and create music. But, some kids with disabilities have low ideation and motor planning skills, which basically means it’s difficult for them to come up with new or creative ideas and then use their muscles to accomplish it. So, coming up with and playing musical ideas of their own is a big challenge, and traditionally recommended steps to music literacy are inaccessible.

For these kids, thinking of music in their heads is too abstract, so we might start with ‘push button playing.’ (Here’s where the OT in me comes out.) This is often the concrete, visual, and experiential learning that they need to be able to begin to understand audiation and composition.

In fact, piano can be a really helpful tool for developing all kinds of skills. Music doesn’t care what it sounds like or why it’s played, so why should anyone else? So alongside teaching a love of music participation, sometimes I use the piano to help students achieve their OT goals like improving ideation (creating new ideas), fine motor (finger movements), and visual skills. And I usually do this through a reading-first method.

I’ve found that the FableNotes book and workbook are the best tools out there for kids who still have a hard time with the abstract, including kids with disabilities and the youngest learners. Here Come the High Notes is the perfect way to bring excitement and curiosity into music for all kinds of learners. You can read it to babies and toddlers who will begin to hear the musical language and think about relationships between notes. You can use it to give kids with ideation difficulties a framework to understanding the notes before developing improv and audiation skills. Or you can introduce it once they’ve moved through the typical progression of pre-music literacy, and they’re ready to read music.

Doctors recommend reading books to infants long before they can read, to give them a language and literacy foundation before being in school. The same way, you can teach note reading while exploring music and working towards audiation and improv. Then, by the time their brains can hear how music works, they’ll also be fluent readers in our music notation system.

So take your time in teaching, and follow your student’s lead. If you meet them at their developmental level and work your way up, no matter how unconventional your teaching, they’ll develop a strong foundation in music literacy.

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

I often hear music teachers of older kids talking about how they can’t do music games now that their students are older. I call BS! There’s no age when music shouldn’t be fun.

It’s strange that when people reach a certain age they decide that things just don’t have to be fun anymore. That’s just culture, it’s not actually based on what happens to our brains as we get older. The truth is, we all need more play in our lives.

When I was at Tufts, I took a class as part of my child development major on schools and education. One of our assignments in that class was to play for 30 minutes and then write a reflection. Sounds simple enough. Turns out, none of us remembered how to play. We emailed one another frantically asking if anyone had any ideas for what to play. The concept of play had been squashed out of us over decades of ‘growing up.’

Play is the first way that we learn. Through play, kids explore their environment, learn about how the world works, practice life skills, develop relationships, and process new concepts. But somewhere along the line, we forgot about the power of the imagination and playfulness to help us remember and learn. In the last 20 years, especially, the amount of time kids spend playing has taken a nose dive.

I was drawn to occupational therapy in part because of the way OTs found a way to turn everything into a game. Practicing picking things up? There’s a game. I can think of about 10 games to teach writing the letter ‘A’. Anything from strengthening random neck muscles, to practicing visual perception all become obstacle courses, swings, crafts, or other activities.

So, why do OTs turn work into play? Because the outcomes are better! Kids are actually more focused, less time is wasted, more skills are retained, and it motivates them to keep trying and honing difficult skills.

Playfulness is making a comeback in education. Books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Sleepy Little Alphabet, Alpha Oops!, LMNO Peas, etc. bring the alphabet to life and help kids connect with the letters. In the past few years, Kickstarter has also had a boom of new authors writing imaginative storybooks to teach lots of new topics including: computer coding, periodic elements, foreign languages, and more.

Now music education is falling behind. Still, the only way music educators teach is through small black notes. That would be like only teaching the alphabet with Times New Roman 12-point font. The 21st century has opened up a lot of knowledge and research, and it’s time to use that research to improve music education. Because children deserve better.

If something like music isn’t fun, kids give up. How many students have to needlessly quit, thinking they don’t like music, before we realize that the problem is with the teaching resources and not the students! We need to develop the tools that get kids beyond the beginner stage faster, so they can start playing what speaks to their souls sooner, and we can retain lifelong musicians.

What are the keys to 21st century music education?

FableNotes brings music education into the 21st century, bringing the notes to life through lovable characters and memorable stories.

1. Open your mind to different types of students

People have told me many times that they’re surprised that I’m willing to take students “so young,” but I don't believe there is as such thing as too young for music. People also wonder how I could teach piano to kids with disabilities. My studio acceptance is based on one simple question: does the child have an interest in music?

If you decline students based on their disabilities, you may have been that child's last chance to access music education. I believe that any teacher can teach a child with the right tools. I hope this blog will serve as a resource for music teachers looking to adapt their teaching style to become more inclusive.

2. Put away your timeline

Fellow teachers often tell me there’s not enough time for play. So they don’t reserve time in kids lessons for learning games. But, are you really ‘saving time’ if your music student ends up dreading music and quits within a few years?

When I’m teaching students, whether or not they have disabilities, I meet them exactly where they’re at. Some kids do best when they stick with colored music for a while, but this makes it so that even a 3-year-old can begin playing real repertoire that interests them, like Bouree by Teleman. Children this young aren't developmentally supposed to be able to read music! Their visual skills are really still developing. But if all we had to do was put some sticky notes on the keys and color the music, then why note make it accessible and fun for her. By teaching the old-fashioned way, young kids get stuck in the beginner stage, as they can only play what they can read.

Other kids might be able to read standard music notation by the second lesson. Regardless, we work our way through each step, breaking down tasks into the next most manageable chunk, so that I know they’re able to confidently move through the ranks as a musician. But on our journey, I always make lots of time for games. Which brings me to the third tip for teaching music the 21st century way:

3. Make it fun:

I use the FableNotes learning materials to teach where to find the notes on the sheet music.

  • Piano keys- we move little characters and race up the piano to whatever note you roll on a dice.

  • Rhythm- We use dice to randomly generate a series of music note lengths, then we explore how it fits into a time signature.

I use games to teach lots of other concepts as well, like sharps and flats, hand position, finger numbers, composition, skips and steps, triads, etc. There's still plenty of time to drill the tough parts of the songs they're working on, but I know that when it's time to buckle down, they'll be totally efficient and focused.

4. Don’t just teach notes- teach music

Have you ever heard the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”? Playing an instrument goes deeper than just playing each note. The sum of music is greater than each note that goes into a song. It goes much deeper, involving the relationships between the notes, and the way we play the notes in relation to one another.

When kids read Here Come the High Notes, they start to reflect on the relationships between notes as they read about how the notes interact. The characters' personalities and unique relationships help students to begin to understand concepts like musical intervals and chords.

5. Prepare their whole selves for music

Music, like any learning, involves the whole body. It begins by making sure the core of the body is stable. I use a stool that's really adjustable so that my students from ages 2+ can always have their feet on a firm surface. I change the height for every student so that their knees are at 90 degree angle. My stool is about like this one (*not an affiliate link).

There's a saying in occupational therapy that goes "proximal stability leads to distal mobility." That basically means that if your trunk is stable, it'll be easier for you to focus on small movements of your fingers or mouth to play an instrument or sing. But if your feet are dangling, you'll be wasting too much brain energy on struggling to stay upright, and it compromises your ability to focus on learning littler movements.

But sometimes it's not just posture you have to consider, but sensory needs. Some of my students benefit from getting lots of sensory input during their piano lessons. Sometimes during my lessons we read Here Come the High Notes, or go through workbook pages on a swing or while rocking them in a rocking chair. Other times we might do rhythm exercise while bouncing on a ball or mini trampoline.

Kids might need sensory supports for a variety of different reasons. Some of my students who need movement games incorporated into their lessons have sensory processing disorder, seizures, autism, ADHD, chromosomal disorder, or they may have no diagnosis at all. More than 1 in 20 children have sensory processing difficulties, so it's important for teachers to be aware of all the ways to make music more accessible for these students.

With the right tools, everyone can learn and/or teach music.

Special needs is just that, special needs. I'm exited to be a part of helping teachers to learn some of those needs so that we can welcome any new student with open arms. You can always contact me via the contact page for specific advice on making music accessible for a child you know. Sign up for the email list to get blog updates and more ideas for accessible music education.

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