Reading music while playing a keyboard percussion instrument can be a big challenge for young musicians. Here are some thoughts on how to help your percussionists become better readers.
WHY KEYBOARD PERCUSSION IS DIFFERENT
In certain ways playing keyboard percussion is the complete opposite of most wind instruments. Tone production is not a challenge; you can easily play the full range of the instrument the very first time you try. However, reading while playing is very hard since beginner percussionists need to look at their instrument whereas wind players can simply feel with their fingers and read their music. Between looking at the music, watching the conductor, and checking their beating spot, young percussionists have to learn how to move their eyes between three different places (some of which are very far apart)!
Adding to the challenge is the fact that bells, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone all have bars of varying widths. Some students practice at home on a small instrument and play in school on a much larger one. Imagine a young clarinetist having to switch between instruments where the spacing between the keys was different every time.
Another significant difference is that keyboard percussionists don't physically touch the instrument while they play. Since they use a mallet to strike the bars young players need to develop a "feel" through repetition and experience.
As a result of these challenges young percussionists frequently wind up memorizing their music since reading it is so hard. They prefer the comfort of looking at the instrument instead of the music since they are afraid of playing a wrong note. And who can blame them!
6 WAYS TO HELP
1. Do lots of reading. Start with short, simple, step-wise exercises that have a limited range. The more they read the more comfortable they will be. This book is perfect for that. (You can use a Bb book to let them play in easier keys or the C book for more common band keys.)
2. Play lots of scales in chunks. (Handouts here) As they play up and down the keyboard more and more your students will begin to develop a "feel" for the instrument. After a while they won't feel the need to look down as much.
3. I always tell my percussionists "set your mallet above your beating spot, and look up." If the mallet is over the note they want to play then all they need to do is snap their wrists. Sometimes, in order to get them to trust themselves, I'll have them set their mallets over a note, then have them close their eyes and wait a couple seconds. On cue they will snap their wrists to play the note and usually they play the note correctly. This is a reminder that they don't need to look down the whole time they are playing.
4. Lower the music stand! When students are just beginning to learn to read place the music stand just above the bars as close as it can be without blocking their beating spot. This will help them use their peripheral vision to see the bars while they read their music. Gradually raise the stand as they get more comfortable so they can also see the conductor.
5. Use Say it, Fingers, Play it. Using their fingers allows young students to literally feel the notes they are going to play before they pick up their mallets and play. It helps them make a stronger connection in their brains, and develop a comfort level. Also, it helps them focus on reading the music first rather than stopping and hunting for notes. I usually encourage my students to put down their mallets and use their two index fingers. This has the added benefit of helping them figure out what stick pattern will work best,
6. Develop feel and peripheral vision. If the music moves mostly by step then players only need to move their mallet a little bit to play the next note. Have your students play up and down a scale slowly (they can repeat each note 2-4 times to make it easier) and feel how small the motion is when changing from one note to the next. They can even try it with their eyes closed. Then they can try doing this while keeping their eyes fixed on the music stand so they are playing the scale without looking down. They can use their peripheral vision to make small adjustments if needed. Start in C major and progress to scales that have more accidentals. As they continue they will develop the ability to use their peripheral vision and play expanded intervals.
I hope these tips work for you. If you give them a try let me know how it goes, and let me . know if you have any questions!
The ability to read music is essential for students to have a positive experience in band. Unfortunately this is a challenge for some students, and can prevent them from making progress. It's best to help these students develop the tools to help themselves.
One approach that has worked for me is called Say it, Fingers, Play it.
Students choose a small section of music and follow three simple steps:
Students should not move on until each step is done correctly 3-5 times. Usually if these steps are followed students play the selection perfectly on their first try. This method is effective because:
In my experience students often surprise themselves at how well they do. Some students are used to starting off with lots of mistakes and fixing them as opposed to starting by playing correctly. This approach leads to success and helps avoid bad habits as well.
The challenge with Say it, Fingers, Play it is that it requires patience. Some youngsters are not used to doing lots of repetition, nor are they used to thinking before they play. However, the good news is that by following these steps students develop the skills to learn music faster and more accurately. Eventually the process speeds up and they will be able to do fewer repetitions, skip steps, or choose larger selections.
The best way to build confidence and develop reading skills is to do more reading! Use Sight Reading Exercises for Band for two minutes each day and your students will be incredible readers in weeks. This is a perfect resource for beginners or intermediate students to practice reading something new, and it only takes as little as 30 seconds.
My students love using it since the exercises are short, quick, and always something new. Each chapter starts off super easy to build confidence and gets progressively more challenging. Ranges are limited so students can focus on reading rhythms. I usually do blocks of 5 lines at a time in class, and I have seen improvement literally in minutes!
Tips for Band Teachers
Practical ideas for your elementary and middle school band class.