Foundational Note Reading Skills, Part 1

Pre-Twinkle and Twinkle

A friend asked how I approach note reading with my youngest students and I’m happy to share as it’s one of my favorite areas to teach!

My approach is experiential, incremental, and heavily influenced by years of teaching piano and working with graded choral programs. I was also once a Suzuki kid who missed making note reading connections, so I began including these skills from the beginning with my string students. During the pre-twinkle and twinkle stages, I keep the focus of lessons on technique and musicianship by way of Suzuki repertoire. The foundational note reading skills presented below are incorporated into their private lessons or are presented during group classes. My string students attend group classes without parents, so I send parents a follow up picture and explanation after each class. I use material drawn from Music Mind Games by M. Yurko, Dalcroze, and Orff. The goal is for students to experience these concepts and set the stage for further connections. I’ve found that there’s a developmental window in which students learn note reading concepts easily in a side-by-side fashion with their repertoire. Taking advantage of this builds their sense of competency and leads to students who read with ease.

Musical Alphabet

At some point during the Pre-Twinkle or Twinkle stage, I have them learn to say the musical alphabet, going up and down, when they take a bow. I teach them to say, “ABCDEFG” when folding down and “GFEDCBA” when they come up. Students typically need to learn to say “GFE DC BA” for a few weeks to make that easy.

At another point, typically in group classes, I have them repeat “ABCDEFGABCDEFGABCDEFG…” after me and see when they catch on that there’s no H in our musical alphabet. Once we’ve done this, I present the alphabet cards in the Music Mind Games Puppy Pack. Students are first given one set of musical alphabet cards. If they’re familiar with their letters, I see if they can put them in order. If they can put them in order, I give them more cards. When we’re not in a pandemic and are able to work in close proximity, I have them work cooperatively, taking turns adding cards to make a huge musical alphabet. I have also had students draw the musical alphabet in this way using chalk during a kinderchoir camp. You can find the activity this is based on in the Music Mind Games book referenced above. It is called ‘There is No H in Snake!’


Sometime during the Pre-Twinkle stage, I introduce some motions that go with quarter and half notes. In my studio, we usually call quarter notes “walk” and half notes “slow___.” Twinkle melody becomes a song that we sing in several ways, but one way is by substituting the word “slow__” at every half note and eventually, using the word “walk” for the quarter notes. Typically, we only sing the bread part of the piece this way. Our hands alternate tapping on our knees for “walk” and they slide across our thighs for “slow___.” This is something they can do while singing or when listening to me or a sibling play. It also is nice to connect to echo bows on open strings.

At another point, again typically in group class, I get out cards that have a picture of “walk” and “slow__” on them. The kids are usually quite excited to see them. I introduce 4 quarters first followed by 2 half notes. Then we mix them up and, even, put the half note in the middle! It’s incredibly rewarding when this makes sense to them right away. The cards I use have animals on the other side, so I also have them flip those over and we clap and count saying “bee” and “worm__” as well.

Notes and Intonation

I am a huge fan of developing care around intonation from the beginning. I start with introducing an A tuning fork. begin by giving each student a chance to listen to A on the tuning fork until it disappears. Bonus: this is a fabulous centering activity, especially if you have a larger or more active group. Note: This is a good time to introduce the concepts of sound and I don’t shy away from sharing the physics behind it right from the start: the tuning fork vibrates, a string vibrates, our vocal folds vibrate. These are things we can see and feel that relate directly to what we hear. If you have a cello nearby, making the C string ring, through pizzicato or by drawing the bow, is fabulous, but the G string, on the violin, works just as well.

From there, we learn to sing “A” by pretending to throw an “A Ball” back and forth. I make a throwing motion with my arm while I sing, “A” and they do the same when they sing it back to me. The throwing motion helps students engage the breath, which is helpful especially if they aren’t used to singing. I never correct wrong pitches. We just keep doing it and I take note of how these skills develop over time. I then sing “A going down to D” (on A, G, F#, E, D) and we practice tossing “D” balls to each other. If we’re in a group class, we might pass a D around our circle. Listing for the spinning/ringing of the string as we pizzicato/sing helps keep the attention away from shyness. If a student doesn’t participate, I simply sing for them pianissimo, so that we keep the learning going. Another thing I do at thisstage is sing into our violins to see if they will sing back to us. We pizzicato each of our strings, in turn, and sing “A, D, G, E” into our f holes. My D string is very resonant, so I tell them that, “My violin loves D string,” and the kids are able to hear the sound swirling inside my instrument long after I’ve stopped singing.

The only other thing I do at this stage is sing Twinkle in the key of D. I believe this is in one of the Suzuki group class books. Basically, you sing it with words and then begin substituting the letter D for every D note. Once that’s easy, I have them pizzicato D each time. Bonus: add the As as well. Some kids will catch on from there, but I don’t usually introduce more since they learn to play Twinkle in A.

More in Part 2!

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