Teaching young kids to read music is quite a challenge. I approach through a long process of micro-steps. It’s the reverse of peeling an onion. It’s a layering technique of building up from tiny kernels of understanding, expanding outwards. The first lessons are always performance focused – get them excited about playing a song! It’s fun and within reach to play a song in 5 minutes! That is so awesome! Then over the course of many lessons, we explore basic concepts of music theory through a series of games. One of these “games” is learning solfeggio (Italian pronunciation), also known as solfège (French pronunciation). This is the system of pitches with words that was created in the eleventh century by a Benedictine monk, Guido de Arezzo.
To make it easier, I always look for ways to engage other learning modalities besides visual or aural. In this case, an Englishman by the name of John Curwen did this work in the 1800s by creating a system of hand signs to go with the solfège system. This engages the brain to have another way of remembering these pitches. Kids love it and it certainly is fun! Another great educator (and composer) the Hungarian Zoltan Kodàly took these hand signs and made it easier by associating a height with each sign to correlate the rising of the pitch with each syllable. In my lessons, I teach my students using 2 hands to make it even easier as it balances both left brain and right brain. Plus it’s easier and more fun! Did I mention that fun is important? I created a printout for my students that features…them(!) – to help remember these.
Hopefully we’ll all be singing and signing at our next recital. Here’s a video from another teacher (who also produces wonderful educational tools which I use and heartily recommend.) After internalizing these pitches and then connecting them with notes on the staff, reading music becomes connected with the aural, visual and kinesthetic. It has become much easier to move into any standard method book after a few weeks of this.