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Article published in Piano Professional EPTA Uk Spring 2010 issue 22 – 24th January 2010

A new look at an old problem. Sight-reading!!! by Sharon Goodey.

Students at grade 1 and 2 level are 20 times more likely to make an error in note finding than those at the higher grades. Students at grade 1 and 2 level take on average 3 ½ seconds to find and play a note. At the higher grades the average is 1 second.

These statistics are the result of some very small scale research that I have conducted with the help of a couple of colleagues. The results are not totally reliable as the number of students tested was relatively small. I would therefore like to enlist the help of EPTA members to produce results that are truly representative.

This research came about as a result of three observations that I have made recently that have resulted in my questioning the structure and purpose of the exam sight-reading tests that we are all so familiar with.

The first observation was made at the beginning of the September term when I took on a handful of new year 7 students at the senior school where I teach. Typically this occurs each year and most are generally around grade 2 or 3 standard. What I noticed was that all of these students, when I reached for the sight-reading book, announced that they couldn’t sight-read. This kind of reaction is something that we are all familiar with. However, I was also teaching several students from various countries world-wide who come to the school as boarders in order to master the language and obtain a ‘British education’. I have found that very few of these students have used the music exam system that has become so entrenched in our education system. These students appear to have comparable sight-reading skills to British youngsters, but they tend not to make the same negative assumptions. For them sight-reading is the skill that enables them to learn new pieces. It has developed quite naturally over a period of time.

Whilst contemplating the differences between these two groups of students I found myself considering how my expectations change as students progress through the grades. It occurred to me that I am perfectly happy to put a grade 8 piece in front of a grade 8 student and expect them to slowly sight-read through. I would have the same expectations of a grade 5 student. However, it would be very rare for me to do the same with a grade 1 or 2 student. With these students I would automatically ask them to take one hand at a time before trying both together. This observation led me to wonder whether the sight-reading tests themselves (at these lower grades) are actually doing more harm than good. In the current format there is an assumption that students of all grades have a comparable ability to sight-read relative to their level. So, I then set myself the task of analysing whether or not this is a valid assumption. Are we trying to test a skill that has not yet had time to develop sufficiently?

I began by considering the different skills necessary for sight-reading. Broadly there appear to be three basic areas. Firstly the ability to read rhythmic notation and to maintain a steady pulse; secondly the ability to read in intervals and so determine the position of a note in relation to the one just played; and finally note finding ie seeing a note on the page and being able to go directly to that note on the keyboard. In my experience the first two of these skills don’t seem to cause too much problem. They can generally be taught in a progressive way that seems to fit with the levels required for the corresponding sight-reading tests. The third element, note finding, seems to be the area that causes the biggest problem. I have noticed that, for some youngsters at grade 1 level, the 30 seconds given in the exam to look through the test can be taken up almost entirely with finding the hand position. It is not unusual for such children to make an error at this point and play the whole test on the wrong notes.

I decided to put together a test to find out more precisely what skills the average student has in terms of note finding. I wrote ten semibreves each on a treble stave and a bass stave. I asked each student to find and play all ten treble notes as quickly and accurately as possible and told them that I was going to time how long it took. I also counted the number of errors that the student made (if a note was played incorrectly but immediately corrected I did not count this as an error). I then repeated the process with the ten bass stave notes. Many of these students had been taught by a variety of different piano teachers at their previous schools. However, I decided to enlist the help of some colleagues in order to broaden the range of students and style of teaching that may have had some influence. I made copies of the test notes in order that all students had the same task.

I found the results fascinating. It was very interesting that most students took longer to locate bass notes than treble, even at the higher grades. The result that I found most staggering was that students were 20 times more likely to make an error at grades 1 and 2 level than those at the higher grades. In addition, the higher level students could find and play a note, on average, in one second. For the lower grades the average time was 3-4 seconds per note. It seems to me that students who can read by ‘intervals’ with complete security will generally have little problem with the standard sight-reading tests. However, at any point their ear may tell them to question a particular note. When this situation occurs they will need to ‘read’ one or more notes in order to correct themselves or to confirm that the note had been correct. If it takes 6 seconds to locate one treble and one bass note the sight-reading test is going to fall apart!!

So what are the possible solutions?

Firstly I would like to carry out further research in order that we can all be sure of our facts! Please see below if you feel you can help with this. I really need to test several hundred students at all levels. In the meantime I have had some thoughts that I would like to share with you and would really appreciate as much feedback as possible about these and any other suggestions.

In my opinion the aims and objectives of teaching a grade 1 student are quite different from those of a grade 8 student. A grade 1 student is learning how to read music in order that they can learn new pieces independently. A grade 8 student already has these skills but needs to work at fluency and speed of reading which will be helpful in situations such as ensemble playing. I would like to see the lower grade tests replaced with a few tests that separate the skills. For example, clapping a rhythm, identifying intervals and note-finding of individual notes with a key signature. In my opinion these tests could become the building blocks that would finally come together and create more confident and secure sight-readers.

Youngsters are learning new pieces all the time and so they are always practising their sight-reading, but this is happening with the guidance and help of a teacher who knows the individual and knows how much help to offer with each new piece until they can finally learn to read independently. My research, so far, indicates that this stage is reached at around grades 3 to 4.

Note Finding Test:

Please help by testing your students. The more students that are tested the more reliable the results will be. Findings will be published on this website and in a future issue of Piano Professional EPTA Uk.

In order to obtain a true average it is important to test students of all abilities, ages and grades. If you test students who are pre grade 1 please test only those who have taken a Prep Test or Initial Test or are about to sit the exam. Explain to the student that you will be timing them to see how long it takes to play a series of notes. Explain that they will first be playing treble notes, then after a short break they will play bass notes. It is important that they do not have time to study the notes before they begin, so please tell them to begin within about 5 seconds of showing them the notes.

When the treble notes have been completed take the sheet away from view while you record the figures. After a short break continue the test with the bass notes.

Please record your results in the format shown below. Alternatively click on this link for a more complete table: sight-reading test notes and results table.

Please post results to : 29 Home Mead, Writtle, Essex CM1 3LH or send by email to sharongoodey@hotmail.com Deadline 31.05.2010

* Students names are not required but this will help you to know who you have tested.

** If students do not take exams please estimate grade. Please write ‘E’ for estimated.

*** Make sure that the student receives no feedback from you. Count the number of notes that were played incorrectly. If an incorrect note is corrected do not count this as an error.

 

BBC Radio Kent Broadcast

“A music school in East Kent is seeing remarkable results from a groundbreaking method of teaching music to children with learning difficulties. The `Playing with Colour` music books, created by teacher Sharon Goodey from Essex, break with 200 years of traditional teaching methods by using coloured notes instead of the more conventional notation, enabling students to play a tune by the end of the first lesson. Jo Burn has been to see it in action…”

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Sharon’s secret to picking up piano

A CHELMSFORD piano teacher has caused a stir in the music business by inventing a brand new way to learn.

Sharon Goodey is the author of a series of new books that have received praise and a little confusion from the music world, for breaking with 200 years of teaching tradition.

Sharon, a 49-year-old teacher from Home Mead, Writtle, has been teaching for more than 35 years, and has invented a method she claims makes it easier for children to learn piano.

Instead of learning to play using oldfashioned sheet music, the new method uses a special colour and number-based score.

Using the numbered stave and coloured notes makes it easier for youngsters to know which piano key to press, and which finger to use.

In particular, children with reading difficulties are said to find the method much simpler.

Sharon explained: I was originally motivated to write this material in an effort to help children who struggled with their piano lessons, and often progressed extremely slowly or gave up after a few terms.

It became clear their problems were not related to difficulties in playing, but in understanding the notation. Conventional methods were not adequate, a system of child-friendly notation was needed.

After asking fellow teachers to trial her ideas and testing them herself, Mrs Goodey found her results were even better than she had hoped.

And she got to work on creating books that could be used to teach young children, without breaking their confidence. But writing the books took time. Because there was no computer software that uses numbered staves or coloured notes, all the scores had to be drawn note by note on computer.

Sharon added that children enjoyed learning their pieces with much more ease, and focused more carefully on the music.

I found the understanding of notation developed quicker in children of all abilities, she said.

The children focus all their attention on the notes themselves and don’t develop their own strategies for learning music, such as memory and guesswork.

The books slowly introduce traditional sheet music, to let children gradually get to grips with reading standard music notation.

There are now four Playing with Colour books, available on the internet and from Chelmsford music shop James Dace and Son.

The teacher’s new style is gaining international recognition, and after giving talks around the the UK, she plans to visit New Zealand and Australia.

She commented that she was confident of her longterm success, and that in future she would like to write a book for any adults who wanted to learn using her method.

For more information visit www.playingwithcolour.co.uk, or www.music-exchange.co.uk.

New books add splash of Colour

A NEW and easy way to help children learn to play the piano is now available through a range of music books.

Playing with Colour uses ‘child friendly’ colour-coded notation to replace conventional methods.

With over 30 years experience of teaching piano, Playing with colour creator Sharon Goodey found that traditional methods oftern led to slow progress and significantly hindered dyslexic and autistic children.

One significant advantage of using Playing with Colour, was children being able to identify and correct their own mistakes far more easily because the coloured notes offer instant feedback. This makes practice at home much easier and children feel more comfortable and confident when they progress to conventional notation.

“I found that the understanding of the basic principles and concepts of notation develop quicker in children of all abilities,” commented Goodey. “Children focus their attention on the notes themselves and don’t develop strategies for learning music, such as memory and guesswork.”

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Playing With Colour by Sharon Goodey

Playing With Colour is a new series of books that have been well tried and tested (prior to publication) by twenty different teachers and their students. The Books aim to help children to read music more quickly and easily. They have been found to be particularly helpful for young beginners and also for dyslexic and autistic children.

There have been many systems where colour has been used to teach music. Usually this has meant giving each note a different colour whereas here it is each finger that is identified by means of a different colour. As a result the printed music looks very pretty!

In Book 1, printed in landscape form for the young beginner, there are several differences to the way the music is presented. The five lines of the stave are numbered 1 2 3 4 5 starting at Middle C. The children are taught to think in alternate notes branching out from C so that from the beginning they link the geography of the stave to the geography of the keyboard. At the beginning of each stave is a picture of the right or left hand with the colours for each finger. The notes are then printed on the stave in the appropriate colour for whichever fingers are playing them. The colour for each finger remains the same in either hand thumbs are always red for example.

From this point the pieces develop in same way that any conventional tutor using the Middle C position does. The notes are introduced one at a time with new time-values, staccato and legato, and so on. When the two staves are shown, the treble stave appears in blue with the bass stave in grey and they are positioned closer together than usual so that the Middle C for both hands takes the same position between the staves, thus enabling the student to see clearly that they are the same note. Time signatures are written with the number of beats on the top and a picture of a crotchet underneath so the children can read it literally as three ‘crotchet beats’ or ‘four crotchet beats’. As these books are offering a new way to start learning to read music rather than to replace conventional notation, by the end of the first book there are some little pieces for sight-reading written in the traditional black notation.

Book 2 moves to having the staves placed the usual distance apart and introduces the clefs. Letter-names and finger-numbers are used more frequently and there are lots of activity pages covering different aspects of theory, simple analysis, rhythms to clap and note reading. Throughout the books there are listening games, opportunities to choose the title yourself according to the character of the piece and some blank bars where you can improvise your own bit of tune.

Book 3 takes a further step closer to conventional music. The stave-lines are now printed normally, without the numbers, though I can’t imagine that the children even notice this change particularly. They are moving closer to reading ?music without colour’ all the time. By the end of Book 3 the children will be almost Grade 1 standard and certainly ready to read the usual publications.

This is a very clever approach to teaching reading that has been well thought out and will really appeal to children. Using colour for the fingers would certainly make it more obvious to the children if they were using the wrong fingers and so they would also be learning good finger shapes and patterns for future playing. Sharon Goodey provides her own original pieces which are not only good but in a wide variety of styles. To see what the books look like and find out more you can visit the website www.playingwithcolour.co.uk Definitely worth a visit!

Colour Scheme

In the following article Sharon Goodey herself explains why she believes her approach can be successful.

Piano teachers frequently struggle with the dilemma of what age to start formal piano lessons with young children. Whilst many 5 and 6 year old beginners learn with ease, some children of this age clearly struggle during the first year or two of lessons. One solution is to follow some kind of selection procedure. However this implies that children must be rejected. An alternative solution is to refuse to take all 5 and 6 year olds. But this solution neglects to cater for many musical young beginners who would gain a great deal from music lessons at this age.

It is also clear that children who are successful at a very young age are generally those who receive a great deal of help and support at home. However, many parents experience all kinds of problems when trying to help their children with their practice. Therefore, for a teacher to attempt to insist on such support is often impractical.

As a teacher with more than thirty years experience I had found myself in the position where I was specialising in this age range. This included teaching such young beginners at the Guildhall School of Music and two large public schools. The question tha t I asked myself was ?Why do younger children need so much additional help from their parents in order to practice? When I teach older children, all that I expect from parents is their support and encouragement. Is it possible to teach these younger children without requiring so much additional help at home??

The answer to these questions was that traditional methods of teaching notation were not serving the needs of younger children. These children did not have a problem learning to ?play? but many struggled with learning to ?read? music. It was clear that many children were struggling with note reading and were incorrectly assuming that they were struggling with their playing. This often led to disillusionment and loss of motivation. My subsequent research into this problem has resulted in the publication of the piano tutor books Playing With Colour.

How does it work?

Playing With Colour offers a simplified system of notation that children feel instantly comfortable with. Each finger is represented by no tes of a particular colour.

Pictures of the right and left hand are used, initially, instead of clefs.

These ‘finger colours’ remain constant when the hands move to different positions.

The lines of the stave are given numbers so that line counting is not necessary. The process of note finding is also simplified. Initially it is not necessary for a child to know that (for example) the second treble line is G. It is much easier to teach them how to locate this note and to refer to it as ?line 2?. The traditional method for learning by letter names is taught at a later stage (book 3) when the child is much more able to understand and to put the procedure into practice.

This particular change has made the most dramatic difference to my teaching. Children find this method very simple to understand and will put it into practice with ease and confidence. It is such a delight to see such young children, when presented with a new piece, immediately place Middle C and then step up or down to the correct positions for each hand.

How do children progress to conventional notation?

Whilst the learning of new pieces (using the coloured notation) enables the child’s playing to progress with greater ease, conventional notation is taught from the earliest stages of the first book as a separate exercise.

In this way note reading can be taught in a slower, structured and progressive way and progress in playing is not hindered by the rate of progress in note reading. By the end of Book 3 children have developed a thorough grounding in note reading and are confident to play without the aid of the coloured notes.

When using conventional methods children have to learn theory as a separate exercise. What happens in these books is that the theory is learnt at the keyboard with notes and sounds instead of pencil and paper. Therefore the child understands very clearly the value of the exercises and that the overriding aim is to be playing without the help of the colours.

How well does it work?

This method has proved to be highly successful with young beginners. It is especially good for children who use their own tactics for avoiding note-reading such as memorising and following finger numbers. These children find the colours easy to follow and are able to take time to understand how to read without the colours in a way that is far less daunting than traditional methods. Very bright, musical children sail through the books and progress at a faster rate than they would otherwise. Sight-reading skills develop with a greater sense of security and confidence in both groups of children.

In a survey of 55 children who had been taught by more than 20 different teachers it was found that motivation levels were significantly higher in six and seven year olds who had been using Playing With Colour rather than conventional methods.

What is the value of this method?

  • The youngest children can understand everything that is presented and will not feel bombarded by too much information.
  • New pieces are learnt with greater ease, practice is more enjoyable and motivation levels remain higher.
  • The focus of lessons shifts as less time is spent on note learning and more time can be spent pla ying music.
  • Children follow the music more attentively and this becomes a habit that improves sight-reading and general observance.
  • Children do not feel the need to use strategies such as instantly memorising their music, following finger numbers or constantly asking a parent for help.
  • Parents’ role is reduced to support and encouragement only.

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