Sight-reading and notation

Many of the world’s finest musicians do not read music, so perhaps  we teachers worry too much about notation! Pupils have different learning styles with some depending more on aural ability, while others are ‘visual’ learners who are unhappy unless they have ‘the dots’ in front of them. Occasionally, we may encounter a pupil who is downright resistant to reading from the score and I have one of those at the moment – very frustrating! Nevertheless, the player who cannot sight-read is generally at a great disadvantage: opportunities for independent exploration of new music and playing in ensembles are far more limited for the non-reader. So, while I’m unfazed by the pupil who wants to take a predominently aural approach, I want to do all I can to foster reading skills.

Most of my pupils are exploring new pieces all the time, as they learn lots of quick-study pieces and I insist on covering a broad repertoire at each grade. We adopt a creative approach, with most using the commonly-encountered rhythmic and melodic patterns in
improvisational activities. The familiarity of these patterns to mind and fingers is key to elementary sight-reading.

Fluent sight-readers are looking ahead and recognising familiar patterns coming up. Each bar or so is rapidly memorised and executed by the fingers, while the eyes scan the next. Page-turners are often amazed at how far ahead the performer wants the page turned! We can practise this skill in the same way that school-children practise their spellings: Look at a bar of music for a few seconds, then ‘cover’ it and try to reproduce it from memory. Go back to the music and check the ‘spelling’. Repeat the process until accuracy is achieved. We can do this with each or any of the bars of a piece of music that is new to us before attempting the whole. It is good to note down the date and tempo and return at a later date to read it through at a faster speed.

In the field of literacy, the research behind the “Ladybird Keywords Reading Scheme” found that 12 words make up a quarter of all the words we read every day and 100 words account for half those encountered daily. Similarly, a few rhythmic and melodic patterns account for a high proportion of those encountered in music scores. My “Rhythmic Reading Through Improvisation” is designed to familiarise pupils with the patterns used in sight-reading tests at grades 1-3 and to make learning more fun. Part 1 uses just rhythms and mastering these generally has the biggest impact on sight-reading. Part 2 follows the same
sequence with pitched notes. Part 2 has to have a different pitch range for different instruments and I haven’t made that available online, as yet.

Sheet Music for Absolute Beginners

In the first few months of instrumental tuition, teachers and pupils are generally very dependent on whatever method book has been selected for the pupil. These methods usually introduce one new note or rhythmic duration at a time, along with tunes to practise the new introduction. There is a plethora of methods on the market, so it should be possible to find something to suit each individual. However, the material provided at each stage is often insufficient for a pupil to master it. Moving on prematurely to the the next unit can leave the learner confused and losing confidence. Matters may not be helped by the way in which these books often head their units “Lesson 1”, “Lesson 2”, etc., which makes the learner feel they are failing if they are unable to master each in a week or two.

I frequently have pupils invest in two method books so that they have more repertoire at each level. With adult pupils, this allows me to draw their attention to the fact that teachers have different ideas about the way in which new learning should be sequenced: one may introduce note values more quickly, while restricting pitch to very few notes; another will adopt the opposite approach, and so forth.In the same way, pupils may progress in one area quicker than another. I prefer to delay selecting a method for an absolute beginner until I get a bit of a feel for their individual learning style. As a composer, I’m able to produce original materials for my pupils and I greatly enjoy the challenge of composing satisfying music from severely restricted resources. This was the origin of the “…..Start Here” series and “Sheet Music Starters” Many of these pieces are now available as downloads from the “Music for Beginners” section. They are intended to supplement popular method books. When a pupil needs supplementary repetoire for a particular unit, or to revisit an earlier one, it’s great to have access to another source of sheet music!

Easy Ensemble Music in the Classroom

An exciting aspect of music teaching is that of introducing diverse people to a shared heritage that each can enjoy and recreate in their own way! Thus, one of the first resources I wanted to make available when I set up the Full Pitcher website was a collection of arrangements that had enabled me to facilitate music groups made up of players of hugely different musical and technical skills, where the composition of a group was subject to change from week to week. Although the basic arrangements stayed the same, parts were frequently customised to the needs of individuals. The core arrangements I made available as Easy/Classroom Ensembles and Flexible Ensembles. For the website, many easy pieces were standardised to meet the needs of classes at Key stages 2 an 3. In my own sessions, group members, who were able to do so, were given the freedom to elaborate their parts, or I adapted them, and I frequently introduced improvisational activities which allowed everyone to contribute at their own level. Ideas for this kind of creative work with beginners  can be downloaded from the Easy/Classroom Ensembles page.

For the first few years, sheet music downloads were in the format of Sibelius ‘Scorch’ files, which meant that users could preview the written music and could transpose parts to any key before downloading. This had all the flexibility I wanted to offer but proved prohibitively expensive to run!  It also meant peoples had to install special software and many found it confusing. I came to actually dread selling a score, anticipating the support that might be required! In 2006, I moved the site to a new hosting platform, where I could make the playback available in Flash audio, which is compatible with the vast majority of browsers and could sell PDF sheet music downloads. It isn’t currently practicable, or economically sensible, to offer parts in every transposition but, if what you need is not available on-site, the custom-print service will make a custom set of parts available at very reasonable cost. Printed Packs for the classroom ensembles, with multiple copies of parts for C, Bb and Eb instruments can be found at Packs: Easy/Classroom Ensembles

Happily, few teachers will have to cope with the the enormous range of ability and floating populations that characterised my community workshops, but all could surely benefit from having a few really flexible pieces up their sleeve for when things don’t go to plan! :>)

Piano Improvisation for Beginners

Getting started with improvisation can be more daunting for pianists than for players of melody instruments because of the need to combine both melody and accompaniment. Nevertheless, we have uploaded some ideas for improvisation which can be explored by absolute beginners, whilst remaining absorbing and useful activities for more advanced players.

See Improvisation for Beginner Pianists


Interacting With Other Users

I was absolutely delighted that one user responded to the “Welcome” post saying “It’s really exciting to “hook-up” with other folks who are enabling all kinds of individuals to make music.” This is what I hope so much to facilitate through this blog and what I tried to initiate through the Full Pitcher Forums.

Ours is a large website and it occurs to me that many of you may have missed the links to the forums, which cover areas of interest identified by subscribers to the newsletter which this blog replaces. so, I have created a permanent page on the blog, “Discussions“, which explains the rationale behind the forums with a link to each one.

I hope, of course, that many more people will participate by commenting on posts, here on the blog, and on other people’s comments. When you post a comment here, your email address is not published but your comment is public. If you wish to communicate more widely with other users, you can do this by subscribing to the forums, where members can opt to send and receive private messages from other subscribers, in addition to posting publicly. There is also a ‘live-chat’  facility (limited to 3 subscribers at any one time).

I look forward to some lively discussions!

Improvisation Resources for the Classroom

Good news for the creative classroom! From the end of September the Get Creative! teachers’ notes, providing lots of activities based on music included in our Easy Ensembles series, are available as free PDF downloads.

The activities are presented in the notes in a way we felt would be most useful for teachers at key stages 2 and 3. However, we have used both the ensembles and the activities across a wide age range. No doubt instrumental teachers and would-be improvisers will see how they might be adapted to their own situations.

The pieces are:
Anon: The Carnival of Venice
Anon: Portsmouth
Handel: Minuet II from Music for the Royal Fireworks
Schubert: A German Dance

You will find them at:

Welcome to the new blog!

Welcome to the our new blog, where we will post news and resources geared to the interests of all our user groups. Many of you have registered an interest in one or more of the following areas:
Instrumental Teaching, Classroom Teaching, Special Needs, Improvisation, Kids’ Pages

We will update this blog, rather than communicating with the interest groups via email. You will be able to subscribe to the blog to receive an email when a new post is added and we can have two-way communication, as you can comment on posts.

I look forward to meeting with you through the blog!

Audrey Podmore
(The face behind The Full Pitcher Music Resources)