by Dr. Julie Knerr

I have really been conscious of refining my systems for teaching children so that I will be very disciplined about not skipping or rushing through concepts. By systems I mean the order in which I introduce concepts and the teaching aids and activities I use for each one. Although every student is different, they all need to learn the same concepts. When I find a teaching aid or analogy that works well with multiple types of children, that is a winning Teaching Strategy that I want to make a part of each child’s piano experience.

I wanted to write about my system of introducing the Piano Safari Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards for Book 1, as I have had a lot of practice teaching them this year since I have so many beginners. With my 4-6 year olds, I am very slow and deliberate about moving through the cards slowly and thoroughly, but this system works with older kids as well.

Levels A and B (pre-staff cards) are self explanatory, so I am going to focus on the Level C cards (2nds on the staff).

Step 1. Ask the student to color the treble clef red and bass clef blue. (They go through this exact same process when I introduce new Reading Pieces in their Repertoire Book.)

 SR C1 1
Step 2. Say, “RH starts on Treble…” The student answers (or will after several cards), “G!” Student writes a red G above the first note of the RH.

“LH starts on Bass…”  “C”
SR C1 2

Step 3. Have the student mark the unisons (sames) with his “same color” (purple in this case). Be sure his sames color stays the same. He is not allowed to switch colors from card to card. For more philosophy behind the benefits (and don’t worry, no risks!) of marking intervals, see Mini Essay 12: Marking Intervals with Colors. The act of analyzing every interval for every single card over a long period of time makes the student very adept at seeing the intervals. I call the sames that are across the bar line or that have different rhythmic values “sneaky sames,” because they are harder to find.
SR C1 3
Step 4. For children ages 4-6, I add this step. For older children, you can do this step for the first few cards, or skip it.

Ask the child whether each note goes up or down. As they say “up” or “down” for each note, connect the two notes with a pencil line (like connect the dots). Do not let the child mark them, as young children will have a hard time connecting the notes legibly. If the student asks if he can mark, I just say, “No.”

After you have marked the notes, draw the student’s attention to the fact that in the RH Exercise on this card, we go up the hill and then sled down the other side. LH goes up and down two hills. Here in New England, kids especially love the sledding or skiing analogies, as they all sled or ski. You can even draw a sledding person if you would like.

I have found that this step is crucial for very young students, especially since in Piano Safari, we decided to use standard stem direction rules. Young children have a hard time at first seeing the direction of the note when the stems are pointing in different directions. After a few weeks, students have overcome this difficulty.

Step 5. Ask the child to put Finger 5 on Treble G. Although he needs to realize that each finger plays an adjacent key, the hand should absolutely not be glued to the keys in a position. Instead, he plays with a slightly bouncy arm, non legato, with the arm aligned behind the playing finger. He plays as you point with a pencil above each note and sing “up” or “down.”

If the student tries to play legato, which will usually at this point mean he is losing his good piano hand shape, smearing notes, or playing unevenly, I tell the student he has to play bouncy and is not allowed to play legato yet. Often times I have to explain the reasons to the parent, as parents sometimes push legato on their children at home too soon. When I explain that playing with a bouncy arm preserves their child’s hand shape until their hand is ready for legato and that we will get to legato in Unit 4, parents understand the reasoning behind my insistence on a bouncy arm and hand.

Step 6. Ask the student, “Do you want to write the check marks, or do you want me to?” Most children are thrilled with writing check marks, as in school this is not typically a symbol they draw, so there is a novelty to it. Since the student just played the exercise once, he draws one check mark.

SR C1 4
Step 7.  The student repeats the exercise a second time. This time, point with a pencil above each note to help the student track with his eyes. Do not say the ups and downs this time. Student draws a second check mark.

Step 8. Repeat again, either tracking with the pencil, or if the student is very confident, allowing the student to play with no pointing. If the student has a tendency to look up at the music and down at his hands often, cover up his hands by holding a book over his hands with one hand while you track with the pencil with the other hand. Student draws the third check mark.

SR C1 5

Step 9. I do this step for very young children (4-6). I draw a person and ask the child who it is? “Mommy!!” They think this is so fun, and it provides extra motivation for completing the exercise.
Step 10. Repeat the process with the LH Exercise.
1. Say “up” “down” and track with the pencil. Check mark.
2. Track with the pencil without saying anything. Check mark.
3. Track and cover up the student’s hands, or don’t track and let the student play alone. Playing alone without teacher scaffolding/insurance/help (use whichever word you like) is a privilege. Check mark.

Step 11. For the Rhythm Exercise:
1. Track with a pencil, tap, and count with the student (saying Ta’s).
2. Repeat.
3. Let the student tap along, either alone or with you tracking. If this is easy for the student, tap and count at a faster tempo.
This whole process does take quite a bit of time at first (5 minutes per card), but once the student understands the process, it does go faster. Eventually, if I feel I can trust the student to do the cards correctly at home with the parent, I send a few cards home for the student to complete.

This may seem very picky to require three check marks for each exercise, and to mark each cards in a certain way, but I feel it is important not just to be sure the student is learning to read fluently and confidently, but also for building discipline into the student.

Even very quick students must play each exercise three times. For these students, who can usually play the exercise correctly the first time without help, on the repeats I ask them to play faster, I check technique, or I ask them to play a certain dynamic level.

I have been encouraged by how the students, once they understand this system of marking and playing, thrive on the security of knowing how to do the cards correctly. If I forget something or skip a step, they remind me!

  • For the Level D Cards (3rds), I have the student mark the sames.
  • Level E Cards (2nds and 3rds), I have the student mark the 3rds with his “3rds color.
In Piano Safari Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards for Book 2:

  • Level F (2nds and 3rds), mark the 3rds
  • Level G (2nds and 3rds starting on various notes), mark the 3rds
  • Level H (3rds and 5ths), mark the 5ths
  • Level I (2nds, 3rds, and 5ths), mark the 5ths
  • Level J (2nds and 4ths), mark the 4ths
  • Level K (2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths), mark the 4ths or 5ths.

At a point, I start asking the student if he wants to try a card without marking, so that eventually he grows in confidence enough to play without marking the intervals. This happens at different times depending on the age of the student. Adults do not need to mark any intervals, usually. Younger children will need to mark longer than older children.

By the time students progress to Piano Safari Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards for Book 3, they will not need to mark any intervals. These cards are coming soon!! We will announce the launch when they are complete.