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14 minutes reading time (2735 words)

How do you teach fluent reading on ledger lines between the staves?

In the Spring 2005 issue of Keyboard Companion, the Music Reading Department addressed the teaching of reading ledger line notes above and below the staves. In this issue, we are focusing on ledger lines between the staves. Although many methods begin reading with these notes surrounding Middle C, this ambiguous land remains a mystery to students. The Middle C line is rarely "in the middle" - instead it seems to float around! Notes in this region can be notated two different ways, only adding to the confusion! In the end, students often fail to see the continuous musical alphabet represented on the Grand Staff. In the following article, three teachers share their varied perspectives and provide many options for teaching reading between the staves.

Logical ledger lines

by Amy Glennon

As music teachers, we want our students to be fluent at both recognizing and performing intervals and notes. In my own teaching, the goal is for my students to progress from "figuring out" intervals and notes to a more instant recognition. Two elements have to be in place: under- standing and memorization. Students must understand the Grand Staff as a whole, and they must also understand intervals. Just as important, students must gain fluency, so that the reading of music is not laborious.

The trouble with landmark Middle C

The instant recognition of individual notes and intervals is a big job, requiring constant attention and follow-through. Recognizing n.otes and intervals between the staves presents a unique challenge to our standard teaching techniques. Many of us rely heavily on "spot-placing" notes (put- ting an X on the closest landmark and counting intervals away from that land- mark). This doesn't work as easily with notes that have Middle C as the closest landmark. In these cases, the student must draw an extra line where Middle C would be and then count the interval. Students are often imprecise in drawing the ledger line, which makes identifying the interval difficult. Perhaps you've seen results like those in Example 1.

Example 1

Some of us use "tricks" to memorize notes. I have a few of these and they work for the two notes between the staves shown in Example 2. My tricks might seem a bit strange, but they just might work for you, too! I tell students that the bass staff is a fence and the treble staff is a tree. Students sing a little song about how the Bee is sitting on top of the fence, and the Dog is sitting beneath the tree. 

Example 2

However, these little tricks do not work very well for the notes shown in Example 3. Memorizing these notes isn't easy, as few pieces start with these notes. Therefore, they are not reinforced through daily repertoire practice. It would be so much easier if the only notes we ever had to teach or learn were those in Example 4. 

Example 3
Example 4

Since this is not the case, I would like to outline the steps that I have used to help students master the ledger line notes between the staves.

Ownership of the Grand Staff

Frances Clark believed that students should build the Grand Staff line by line: first reading off-staff, then reading intervals on a partial staff, and finally reading on the Grand Staff. Since the Grand Staff is presented through a logical and progressive sequence, it seems friendly and familiar, not an abstraction.

Ledger lines can also seem necessary and logical if we use a bit of discovery learning. We spend a few weeks just playing Bass F, Treble G, and Middle C on the piano without learning how the notes are written. I then show students the location of Bass F (between th e two dots) and Treble G on th e Gra nd Staff, and students play up and down in seconds from these notes.

I do not, however, show the location ofMiddle C. We begin with Bass F. Students draw Bass F, then up a second: "What is the name of the note you drew?" We then draw up another second to A, then to B, and ... "Oh no!" I cry dramatically. "What shall we do? We're out of lines! I know: we'll just draw another one, but let's make it a short one. Now we can put a note right through the line." (We must be careful about our language: "On top" means different things to different people.) "And now, we have our Middle C Landmark! Let's call the line you drew the Middle C line." The same steps are followed as we d raw down from Treble G to Middle C. A big deal can be made at this point that "two notes that sound exactly the same can look different! One C is on a line above the bass staff and one C is on a line below the treble staff."

This activity can be repeated at another time using Bass F, and instead of stopping at Middle C, the student can draw yet higher to D and E using ledger lines. Again, we can be dramatic about the necessity for two ledger lines. 

Setting the stage: From the keyboard to the staff

As students become comfortable with the Middle C line we spend several weeks play- ing the notes between the staves on the key- board without reading these notes. We use the singing game shown in Example 5, but the students play by rate.

The teacher sings: "Who sits above the Middle C line?" on Middle C pitch while holding down Middle C. The students answer, singing the pitch "D" while playing D on the piano. The teacher sings and strikes Middle C once again. "Who sits below the Middle C line?" and students sing and play "B." Teacher: "Who skips up from Middle C line?" Students: "E," and so forth. After several weeks, we sing the song as I draw the notes on a large grand staff. Stu- dents also have a turn drawing the notes as we sing the song. Finally, students are "tested" on these notes when they are ready.

If we approach the notes between the staves with a lot of preparation and go from the known to the unknown, the mystery of the notes between the staves turns into mastery! 

Example 5

Master intervallic reading first

by Levonne Mrozinski 

The space between the upper and lower staves of the Grand Staff does not need to be a mystery. I find it interesting that for many students the first staff note introduced is not on either the treble or bass staves! This note, Middle C, appears between the staves a either a RH or LH note. Students easily play and under- stand this note as their first landmark. Treble G and Bass F are also commonly introduced as first notes. These landmark notes can be introduced together or one at a time. The next notes presented for treble staff are usually the D above Middle C and, in the bass staff, the B down from Middle C. No other ledger line notes are usually introduced at the beginning level.

Some students have a natural hesitancy or fear when first seeing ledger line notes other than Middle C. For these students the issue is not the relationship between the treble and bass staves, but the need to read by intervals on ledger lines. Understanding the relationship of treble and bass registers aids students in placing their hands in the correct position but provides minimal aid in reading. In the meantime, teachers and students can get caught in a convoluted description of an esoteric concept that does not aid in reading these notes between the staves.

Using secure iriterval reading instead of Middle C

I would like to suggest that fluent reading of notes on ledger lines between the staves is not dependent upon the recognition of Middle C. Rather, a solid foundation of directional and intervallic reading must be mastered before the fluent reading between the staves can be developed. With this foundation, reading notes on ledger lines between or even above and below the staves will be met with accuracy and ease. With this approach, Middle C does not serve students well as a first or primary landmark. Intervallic reading is best learned on a staff and this is where a student must start.

As a result, reading ledger line notes between the two staves should be a continuation of reading skills already learned. When a student is having difficulty reading notes between the staves, we can guess that a solid foundation of intervallic reading has not been established. Once a student fluently reads intervals, a smooth transfer to reading between the staves will take place.

So then, how do we help our students make that smooth transfer of intervallic staff note reading to the ledger line notes between the staves? Let me suggest some strategies that have helped my students.

As soon as the staff is introduced, secure intervallic reading!

For each new piece, students should first tap and count rhythm. Once rhythm has been established, the student is free to focus on reading the notes. Students should say the interval and direction before playing. Reading should be limited to steps and skips C2nds and 3rds), thereby focusing on the discrimination between two intervals, both visually and aurally.

Transfer intervallic reading skills to ledger lines between the staves

It is the role of the teacher to help the student recognize the nearest landmark, Middle C, and then identify the interval size and direction of the notes that follow. If students have been identifying steps and skips of staff notes, this transition to ledger lines will be smooth. After all, reading ledger lines is just a modified extension of the staff. Helping students visualize the ledger lines as being connected or extending into space will assist them in seeing how intervals are the same as when reading on the staff. A light colored pencil is helpful in lightly tracing such visual aids for the initial presentation of ledger lines.

By properly teaching intervallic read- ing on the staff first and then easing in to between staff reading, students will feel more confident and will, in the end, be more successful at ledger line reading anywhere on the Grand Staff. With this confident reading will come the opportunity to explore and understand the abstract relation ship between the bass and treble staves in the Grand Staff. 

It takes constant exposure using varied techniques

by LeAnn Halvorson

Here is a recent exchange I had with a beginning student: Student: I played G, why isn't it right?

Me: How many G's are on the piano? Student (after counting): Seven.

Me: Good. How many ways are there to write G in your music?

Student: (Puzzled look).

Me: Eight!

Student: I don't get it ...

Me: What happens in the middle of the piano?

Student (smiles): Oh - there are two different ways to write G!

The fact that the same note on the piano can be written differently is difficult for students, and it takes constant exposure using varied teaching techniques for students to ultimately "get it."

Using aural, visual, and kinesthetic experience

Shown in the top two photos at right are the Staff to Key Recognition Cardsdeveloped by Music Perceptions, which help students understand where all notes are geographically played. After a note card is placed in its correct place, the student plays the note, with the correct hand (helpful in note read- ing between the staves). Note knowledge is reinforced aurally, visually, and kinesthetically. When showing the cards in Example 6, I love it if a student says, "Something is wrong with these cards, there are two G's." I answer, "In the middle, it is supposed to be that way. One is for the treble clef played with your right hand, and the other is for the bass clef played with your left hand." These color-coded cards quickly teach stu- dents how notes can look different yet use the same key on the piano. I then make sure to reinforce this knowledge by assigning pieces with "between the staff notation."

Example 6

Securing the musical alphabet

Students read better when they can quickly and accurately say the music alpha- bet in multiple octaves starting from any alphabet letter. Saying the alphabet forwards is easy, but musicians must be flu- ent in saying it back- wards too! "Off of the bench" activities, such as those found in Michiko Yurko's Music Mind Games (Alfred), really help young beginning students learn the music alpha- bet. Students enjoy playing "snake" games from her book, using the music alphabet on the floor with tag board cards (forwards or backwards, using specified interval patterns). This activity, shown in the photo at left, speeds up all intervallic reading and is necessary for easy reading between the staves.

An adult student coming back to piano lessons once said, "I know FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, but how does that work again for the bass clef? I never did learn the saying for the lines above and below the staff." I told her, "Ledger lines are just extensions of the staff lines and spaces. You just use the first seven letters of the alphabet over and over, but think the alphabet backwards if going lower." She said, "Oh, that is a lot easier." Students sometimes forget that common sayings for note identification are linked to the music alphabet. Over time, the sayings can morph into something else. This leaves students with no reliable way to identify notation on or off the staff.

Ali places the cards in the correct location.
The cards then help reinforce reading skills.
A snake game teaches the musical alphabet.

The challenge of chord reading between the staves

The blank spaces between ledger notes make intervals and chords harder to recognize. One example of chord reading between the staves is found in Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No.1 (see Example 7). Students will sometimes incorrectly assume that the chords in measures 1-4 are played on differ- ent keys than those in measures 5-8. Music containing switches between bass and treble clefs adds to confusion in reading. Preparation for this reading skill will save a lot of time and avoid a lot of note fixing.

Chord Games by Music Perceptions teaches chords and cadences in inversions.
Musiquest is afun music question game Ihal also reinforces chords and inversions.

Students must be able to recognize chords by their intervallic shape, name all notes in a chord from lowest to highest, identify the root note of the chord, and see common notes between chords. Fun learning activities which teach these necessary reading skills are very helpful. My students and I play a lot of games with the Root, 1st, and 2nd Inversion Major Cadence Chord Games, developed by Music Perceptions, shown in the photo above. Students have fun playing card games matching chords and cadences in different inversions. Jane Calder has developed the game Musiquest (Making Music Fun"'). This music question game, shown in the photo above, is like "Jeopardy." It's pink cards provide excellent chord drill. Students should correctly play all chord answers in the games. When students have fun quickly and accurately identifying chords, learning all new music becomes much easier. 

Example 7 Satie: Gymnopedie No. 1, mm. 1-8

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