Foundational Note Reading Skills, Part 3

Minuets through Early Book 2

Initial Note Reading

Around the time a student is playing Minuet One with ease, I present them with their first note reading book – a booklet I made to move the elements they’ve learned together. It’s called Foundational Note Reading for Young Violinists and is available at my Creek Edge Press website. This booklet takes them through the steps we’ve covered previously at group class. I ask that students write slowly and follow the directions precisely as written on the page. If they do so, they learn how to copy and correctly write the A, D, and two octave G scales on the treble staff. These are then used to practice reading the scales they’ve learned to play in their lessons.

From there, we use I Can Read Music, Vol. 1 and Sassmanshaus Early Start on Violin, Vol. 1. My students pizzicato the pitch portions of I Can Read Music, Vol. 1. I assign 5-10 pages of pitch each week, but we do the rhythm pages only at lessons (unless their parents are musicians who can count). I use the Sassmanshaus book because young children love it and the pictures are engaging. I usually mark out the slurs and sometimes the fourth finger, when suggested, as well. For the most part, this works well for my students. When they’ve completed both of these, we pause and use Vol. 2 of I Can Read Music as sight reading and intonation practice during lessons. I add in selections from the first volume of Applebaum’s Beautiful Music for Two String Instruments for their assigned note reading.

Key Signatures, Intervals, the Circle of 5ths

Volume 2 of the Sassmanshaus series introduces quite a few keys and finger patterns, so be aware that the last third of this book may be best introduced once a student is past Witches’ Dance and Gavotte from Mignon. My students have done well learning to play in these keys when they’ve been introduced with the concept of the key. I do this in group class by placing my bow on the A string and ask them to find the key signature card that matches the string my bow is sitting on. They always choose the card with three sharps because this is ingrained in them from previous learning. We list the songs we learned in the key of A. I then roll my bow to D and ask them to find the key signature card that matches that string, point out the two sharps, and name pieces that we learned in the key of D. I then roll to G string and they find the card with only one sharp and we name the pieces we learned in the key of G. After that, I say that I’m going to pretend that I’m a cello and I wonder aloud, what string I would land on if I had another string. Sometimes, a student already knows, but if not, we say our musical alphabet from A to D and D to G several times to show the relationship between the notes. Then we discover G going down to C in the same manner. I put my bow on the A string and say 3 sharps, roll to D string and say 2 sharps, roll to G string and say 1 sharp, roll to my imaginary C string and the students chime in with zero. This is how we learn the key of C. We go the opposite direction to learn the key of E. They then practice showing me the answer to which key signature I’m holding up by placing their bow at the correct level.

I introduce the interval of a fifth by pointing out the relationship between each of our strings. I typically have them play the first two notes of Twinkle Melody in their open string ‘keys’ first. Then, we put our first finger down and notice how we can play a fifth using our first finger on two different strings and, likewise, with our second and third fingers. I then call A, one, and sing/play the first five notes of an A scale on numbers. They echo me. Then I play and they echo a variety of intervals within that five note pattern. We finish by listening for intervals in our folk songs.

Foundational Note Reading Skills, Part 2

Folk Songs through Minuets

I cover a lot of material while my students progress toward the Minuets. Most of this is accomplished in group classes in between solo performances and repertoire play-ins, but I reference these concepts whenever appropriate during their lessons as well.

Notes, Scales, and Key Signatures

During group class, I introduce the concept of a scale by having them help me make an ‘A Ladder’ using the materials in my Music Mind Games Puppy Pack. The A Ladder begins and ends on A. It has three ‘special notes’ (F#, C#, G#). The students are given the opportunity to make their own A Ladder and we finish by saying the notes and playing them, going up and down. If they are familiar with The Monkey Song or A Scale, they usually make this connection. I also use this as an opportunity to discover the notes in Twinkle Melody by pointing to the notes and while we sing it on note names instead of words and then by singing all of the As, instead of playing them, etc…

As group classes unfold, I present the ‘D Ladder’ and ‘G Ladder’ in a similar way. I make a big deal out of them having two/one ‘special notes’ and I connect all three of these scales with their ‘home on the fingerboard’ and match them to key signature cards so that they become familiar with the concept of a key from the beginning.


During this stage, I add eighth notes in groups of two and four. I continue using “walk” for quarter notes and “slow__” for half notes. Eighth notes are “running.” We tape our knees with alternating hands for “walks,” slide our hand across our thigh for “slow__,” and lightly snap/fake snap in the air for “running.” I have flashcards for each of these that I lay out one measure at a time. I typically start with one measure of each type of note and mix them up from there. Sometimes we do the rhythms presented together, listening to be sure we match, and sometimes we pass the rhythm around our circle by doing one measure each. I typically wrap this unit up by presenting the rhythm of Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which we sing in the key of D using our rhythm words while reading the rhythms. Bonus: This seems to help kids who are prone to getting stuck on their eighth notes when playing this piece on the violin.


I use the Music Mind Games Puppy Pack when it’s time to move our ladders/scales onto the staff. I start by introducing the 5 lines and 4 spaces of the staff and telling the kids that the musical alphabet lives on the staff. We find the ‘hidden G’ in the treble clef sign and take turns matching it up to the G line on the staff. I then place notes all along the G line and sing, “GGGGGGG” as I point to them. I tell the students that any note on that line is always G. I ask them where A might live. Would it be above or below G? We say our musical alphabet to find out and I move each of the notes to the A space and sing, “AAAAAAA” as I point to them. I point again and ask them to tell me the note name. We then find our violins and pizzicato the As that are on the staff. Depending on the group, I either sing, “A Going Down To D” (on A, G, F#, E, D), and focus on A and D for a while or I put the whole A scale on and see if they remember the ‘special notes.’ Retention is excellent with these materials, so either direction works and the process is the same. They see, sing, and play the notes on the staff.

Half Steps

Sometime around Etude, I teach my students how to draw a simple piano keyboard, including white and black keys. We write the musical alphabet on the keyboard, as well, and find the three sharp notes in the A scale. Once we find these, I show them how the first five notes of the A Scale would be played on the piano. We pay special attention to the ‘special note’ C# and how close it is to D. I have the students label that half step with a ‘V’ shaped symbol. Another time, we do the first five notes of the D Scale and label the half step from F# to G. When we do the G Scale, they see that B to C forms a half step as well. Each time we do this, we take a moment to see how that looks when our fingers form a half step on the fingerboard.

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!