Acronyms or Hitching Posts—Note Reading Simplified Darlene Irwin     July 14, 2014

All Cows Eat Grass.....this is one of the many popular sentences used to teach note reading on the grand staff. But is this the most effective way for students to become the best sight readers? 

Sight-reading is a key. It can open the door to the amazing world of music. To be a good sight reader, a student must first learn how to read the notes. It is important to remember that music is a language. When a child is first learning to read a language, they have to start by learning the alphabet. Then they learn how to read words, sentences and eventually books, using those letters. It is the same for music and it takes a good deal of time and effort.

Sight-reading is a gift. I often tell my students that sight reading is probably one of the greatest gifts that I can give to them. My hope for my students is that they will continue to play the piano long after they have finished taking lessons. Many times I have heard adults regretfully admit that they took lessons when they were young but can no longer play. 

Sight-reading is a skill. Acquiring this skill begins with the very first lesson. Here are a few ideas and strategies that have worked for me as I train my students to be the best sight readers they can be.

  • Start note reading at the very first lesson. I prefer to teach the actual notes rather than having students read general positions on the staff and then switching them to the actual notes later on. 
  • There are two main methods that I have used for teaching note reading. The first method is to use acronyms and words (mnemonics) to memorize where the notes are on the Grand Staff. The spaces on the Treble Staff spell 'FACE' and the lines are 'Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (Fun)’ or 'Empty Garbage Before Dad Freaks'. The Bass Staff spaces are 'All Cows Eat Grass' and the lines are 'Good Boys Deserve Fudge (Fun) Always’ or ‘Great Big Dogs Find Animals’. You can also make up your own acronyms. Students generally learn to read quite quickly using this method. However, my experience has been that they can become dependent on these short cuts. It takes much longer to be able to read the notes without saying the sentences, especially in the bass clef. I use this method if the students are not able to learn any other way.

  • My preferred method is sometimes called The Symmetrical 'C' Approach. I find that this method takes longer but achieves better results in the end. The Symmetrical 'C' Approach uses landmark notes throughout the Grand Staff. I call them Hitching Posts. Have students memorize these notes right away. This gives the students something to 'hang on to'. Once they have their Hitching Posts memorized, they can figure out other notes around them.

  • The Grand Staff is like a Mirror. Have them memorize the position of Middle C in the middle of both staves. This is the first Hitching Post. I tell my students that the staff is also like a have to be able to read the notes forwards going up and backwards going down. Have them say the letters ABCDEFG as fast as they can. Then try saying the letters backwards just as quickly...GFEDCBA! Students love trying to see how quickly they can say the letters backwards!
  • After Middle C, I teach the Hitching Posts G and F. In the Treble Staff, G is two lines up from 'Middle C’. The Treble Clef can also be called a 'G Clef' because G is in the middle of the large swirl. And if you stretch your imagination, the treble clef kind of looks like a cursive G. In the Bass Staff, F is 2 lines down from ‘Middle C’. The Bass Clef is also called an 'F Clef'. The big dot of the Bass Clef sits on this F and the two smaller dots are in the spaces on either side of it. If you really stretch your imagination and add two small lines from the small dots back to the bass clef, it kind of looks like an F!  
  • When I feel that the students are ready, I teach that the next Hitching Posts are 'Treble C' (3 spaces up from Middle C) and 'Bass C' (3 spaces down from Middle C). Students can memorize these notes, then figure the notes out around them. 

  • Later on, you can teach that 'High C' (2 ledger lines above the Treble Staff) and 'Low C' (2 ledger lines below the Bass Staff) are also Hitching Posts. Having these notes memorized helps students read ledger lines.
  • Each Assignment Page in The Student Music Organizer has manuscript across the bottom. For beginner students, every week I write notes on the Grand Staff for them name. I use this to review the all the notes they have learned so far. This becomes part of their theory assignment each week and I will continue to give them notes until they know them fluently. Another great idea is to have them play the notes with their thumb behind their middle finger (RH or LH) while naming the notes out loud. They can do this all week as part of their practice and then add the letter names on the page just before the lesson.
  • Flash Cards can be a very effective tool for students who are just learning to read notes. Have them practice the flash cards at home with a parent or sibling.
  • There are Reference Charts for both note reading methods on page 6 of The Student Music Organizer. These Handy Note Readers are also available on small, two-sided or in 8 1/2 x 11 format for teachers to use in the studio.

I have the students start in 3 or 4 beginner books and I use the Dozen a Day books as well. I want them to read lots and lots of music....I call it 'eating music'. The more they read, the quicker they will learn to sight-read. Here are some of the beginner resources that I have used successfully:

  1. Music Flash Cards (Jane Smisor Bastien) or Music Flash Cards - Set A (Hal Leonard)
  2. A Dozen a Day - Mini Book, A Dozen a Day - Preparatory Book (Edna May Burnam)
  3. Easiest Piano Course Part One (John Thompson) I like this book because there are no finger numbers.
  4. Teaching Little Fingers to Play (John Thompson)
  5. Teaching Little Fingers to Play Disney Tunes (John Thompson)
  6. The Leila Fletcher Piano Course - Book One (Leila Fletcher)
  7. Progressive Piano Method for Young Beginners - Book 1 (Gary Turner & Andrew Scott). This book has a wonderful accompaniment CD that can be used at the very first lesson. It also teaches the right hand first and then the left hand in C position.
  8. Leila Fletcher's Music Lessons Have Begun (Leila Fletcher)
  9. Piano Adventures - Book 1: Lesson Book. You can also use the Technique & Artistry, Performance, Popular and Gold Star Performance. I find that these books work well after students have completed the initial beginner books. 

If you have any favourite beginner books that you use, please feel free to share these in the comments below.

 Sight-reading is a skill that takes time to acquire. But it is well worth the effort.

♥︎ Remember.....Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎


Photo Credit: denisbin