One of the things I find most challenging in my music classroom is keeping music reading relevant to students who by and large don’t need to read music in order to have their daily musical experiences. Those of you have been following this blog know that I am a fan of the new NCCAS music standards. Though I still am, I was surprised to realize the other day that music reading and writing is scarcely mentioned. Under creating, students are to “organize and develop artistic ideas and work” using “iconic or standard notation.” That’s it. Use music notation if you can, or if not use something else. Under performing, the only mention of notation is for the purpose of rehearsing, refining and evaluating a performance, and again the use of notation for this is optional: “Identify and apply teacher-provided criteria (such as correctly interpreting notation…”) By eighth grade the wording is the same except that by then the criteria are student made.
Given the limited use for traditional music notation outside of Western art music, and given the paucity of interest many of our youth have for Western art music, traditional music notation could, under the superficial attention given it in the new standards, and the indifference to it shown by many of those youth, be lost to a generation of students. What rationale can be given for teaching music reading in this context?
In my general music classes, I am not, for the most part, preparing career musicians. I am preparing students to get maximum enjoyment out of music for the rest of their lives. I want them to have the option of doing whatever may interest them musically at any point in the future, and I do not want any of them to be in the position of saying, “I would love to sing in that choir, or play in that community band, but I don’t know how to sing, read music, play, or even understand music.” I want all of my students to be equipped to fully participate in music as their interests develop and grow. In order for that to happen, my students need to be able to interact with all of the major genres of music, including those that rely on music notation.I also show them how much more can be noticed and enjoyed when they can read a music score while listening. Things they overlooked when just listening are drawn to their attention by the printed score, and enhance their experience with the piece.
Because some of the “payoff” for learning to read music may not come until some time in the future, it helps to make learning to read music now more palatable with creative game playing. After several weeks of instruction and practice in music reading, my 7th graders played a music reading game. I emphasize that I had to get them reading at a level at which they could succeed at the game before letting them play. It would do no good to use the game to try to teach them to read. They must be reading in order to play the game. Here it is.
First, I printed a 6 x 6 blank table with Microsoft Word. Across the top row I put the letters a-e, and down the first column I put the numbers 1-5. This left me with an empty 5 x 5 grid. In each box I drew a five-line music staff with a treble clef. Then on each staff I put a different four-note melodic motif. No stems, just filled-in note heads. I duplicated this game sheet, and gave a copy to each student, and divided the class into three teams. The object is to successfully sing one box at at time. When sung correctly, everyone on the team of the student who sang correctly circles that box on their game sheet. The first team to complete five boxes in a row wins. They can win vertically, horizontally, or with the diagonal down the center. Every student on the winning team receives a prize, such as a starburst candy.
One of the nice things about this game is that once the class has learned the motifs, they can, for another class, sequence boxes into melodies, and compose variations on motifs, as a method of composing. By then, they will be able to sight-sing their compositions, which gives them an exciting reason to enjoy being able to read music.
I think we can all agree that there is too much great music available through notation to not teach music reading to our students. Giving them practical and enjoyable ways to use music notation is a strategy worth employing for that majority of students who will not otherwise see the need. With only a minority of students learning musical instruments, which in most cases necessitates learning to read music, including the rest in this aspect of experiencing music is vital.