Training Wheels

Those of us who teach beginning musicians know that students often want (need?) letter names written with music notes to identify them more easily. Most modern method books start with some combination of letter names and notes. But the eternal question is when must students stop writing in the letters and rely only on traditional notation?

A couple years ago, in trying to convince a student to stop writing in the letters, I stumbled on the phrase “training wheels.” It’s like riding a bike: Using the training wheels is okay for a while, but no one would want to ride a bike with them all their lives.

Any thoughts on the issue of writing in the note names?


5 thoughts on “Training Wheels

  1. It’s an interesting post – I’ll watch with interest to see any responses. My own approach has until now I guess been a bit harsh. With my students I don’t usually have note names written in – even if they are beginners. My theory being that they will learn quicker if they don’t rely on having them written in.

    I open to change on this though and will see what others think.

  2. I do as much as possible to discourage writing in note names at the beginning. Essential Elements has them on the page through Line 9. Line 10 is exactly the same as Line 9, only no letters inside the note heads. I spend a good bit of time on those two lines.

    I start out without the book. I used to teach theory beforehand, but find it is really not as effective as just teaching them posture, hand position, and embouchure basics and then starting out playing.

    We play a lot before we introduce the book because that minimizes the struggles they have early on. So once about 80% of the woodwinds are pretty comfortable with the 5 notes, and when 80% of the brass are comfortable with F and Bb, I’ll jump into the book.

    If I go back to teaching beginners again sometime, I will spend even more time on the “Big Chief” notes and ask questions and do a lot of board work before transitioning. Same thing for introducing new notes later on in the book.

    Flash cards or something along those lines (PowerPoint/Sibelius/Finale?) is a good option also.

    And if they struggle, I have found that Mark Wessels’ “A Fresh Approach to Mallet Percussion” book has a great treble clef tutoring program. He told me a couple of years ago that he was working on a bass clef version also…

  3. You might also consider having the students compose their own music and notate it for others to play. The process of composing music and then figuring out how to notate it may likely provide them with a different type of situation in which they need to know the note name in order to write it in the appropriate place on the staff. Approaches like this from a more constructivist framework are usually way more time consuming and take place outside of the method book, but provide students with very rich opportunities for thinking through a lot of the issues important to their playing and understanding of music. Often the challenges, conversations, and insights taking place as students are composing and notating their music take them light years ahead of where they might have been following the traditional trajectory of the method book. Plus, more often than not they love the opportunity to create and perform their own music. Good luck with it and let us know how they progress.

  4. I call them training wheels too!

    My position on this has changed over the years, I used to be very harsh and say “no” to it, but I think I probably lost kids with that attitude. I recently came across the idea that writing in notes (as a temporary help) is probably a really good and conscientious instructional strategy. Educators call is “scaffolding”, and good regular ed teachers do it all the time:

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