teaching a child to read the bass clef

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    How long might this take, she’s making very slow progress with reading music, but she’s only 7, the recorder lessons at school are helping, but the emphasis there is on the treble clef and I’d like her to conceptualise both without neglecting the bass clef.
    THANKS for your interest!
    She started on harp aged 6 and I had her drawing both clefs on the stave and introduced the principle, for now, of RH treble and LH bass. She’s just starting to read off the page, at my insistence, with some easy Thomson pieces and a piece with the same notes in each hand. I have taught her the idea of octaves, there’s more than one sense of the word, musically.
    I am especially child friendly and she is very bright in a technical way and moreover I don’t want her to end up like I did, with the treble clef easy and bass, difficult. Carl makes this point below.
    Oh yes Angela, I got her onto two hands very quickly, in pieces with single bass notes against the melody. I took a risk and it worked ! .


    Oh Alison- Make absolutely sure that this kid learns to read both clefs easily. Work mostly on that until she gets it, and then go back to learning to play the instrument. If you don’t, she will invent her own “method” for figuring out lines and spaces, and it will bring her to a complete halt later on. I had a student a few years ago who came to me after 3 years of piano lessons. Oh good, I thought, she can read music. I can focus entirely on teaching her to play the harp. WRONG!!!! Her piano teacher I don’t think had ever taken the time to make this kid memorize and instantly identify the lines and spaces. So she was figuring out the notes by counting up from the bottom each time. I tried working with her on it. But she had done it for so long that that was her default position. I finally passed her on to another harp teacher who’s specialty, and career, was spent teaching theory and solfege. I understand she’s doing better now.

    Angela Biggs

    What a fortunate girl. If she learns this skill at such a young age, she’ll never remember not being able to read music! 🙂 How long it takes really depends upon her internal motivation and the amount of work her parents are willing to do between lessons.

    I have an adult student (retirement age) who is motivated enough to take lessons for free, but not motivated enough to come more than twice a month, and she skips November and December entirely. Harp for her is clearly interesting, but not a priority. We spent several months reviewing flashcards with a timer before she got to the point where she could pluck the correct string for each card with reasonable speed. I would expect a child with a plastic brain, weekly lesson, and musical reinforcement elsewhere in her life to come along faster than this woman, but there are so many variables and I don’t know your student.

    Since your student is getting treble-clef training elsewhere, have you considered an intensive focus on bass clef in your lessons for a few weeks? Once you got past the flash cards, she could play in octaves (if she’s at the point where she’s using both hands simultaneously) while reading only the bass clef.


    May I offer a slightly opposing view? It’s been my experience as an older learner that the easiest things for me to learn are the things I enjoy the most. Now admittedly, having taken up the harp in my fifties I’m never going to be pestered by the RPO but, whatever the learning goals of the pupil concerned, it seems to me that without enjoyment, musicianship is nothing. I started out knowing the notes in the treble clef and not much more and I’m becoming more and more familiar every day with the mechanics of reading music but I think I might have lost interest very quickly if my lessons had consisted of nothing but sight-reading – the reason the pupil is there, after all, is to play the harp.

    In fact, my biggest breakthrough was learning to play a tune I knew well that is fairly fast (no time for counting) but that consists of notes (both in treble and bass clef) which are fairly close together (no big jumps). I found the only way I could do this was by not counting the notes from the bottom upwards but by their distance from the previous note played – that still doesn’t teach you to read music but it does teach you to stop relying on counting out every note, which is the first step. It feels to me that it would be almost impossible to play any instrument without eventually picking up music notation and that it is a question of whether you want to learn that part quickly or are happy to pick it up as you go along.

    Now, having said all of that, here’s the caveat. My background is in both teaching (not music) and learning as an adult. Apart from my own children, I have no experience whatsoever of teaching children and I do realise that it is a completely different ballgame from teaching adults so this is just speculation on my part. I’m just getting so much pleasure out of my own learning that it grieves me every time I hear of someone trudging along to lessons that they have started to dread, because people who hit that point very rarely come back. Not that I’m suggesting that your students are dreading their lessons, just that I fear it could happen when everything is theory. The idea of the flash cards, I must say, sounds brilliant to me, though I’d be more inclined to do ten minutes of that at the end of each lesson than fill whole weeks with it. Just an inexperienced opinion though.


    Lynn- Of course the student should be enjoying the lesson and the pieces she is playing. Especially a 7 year old child. But just like my posting about etudes and technique elsewhere on this site, it is important to instill good habits early. The longer bad habits are left in place the harder it is to change them. I wouldn’t suggest spending a whole lesson on theory. How about using the piece that the student wants to learn as the basis for the theory lesson? On the day the piece is assigned, the teacher could talk through the piece with the student, quizzing her on the rhythm, pointing out notes at random and asking her to play or say the note, etc. so that by the time the student takes the piece home to practice, she has a pretty fair idea of how it is put together, AND, she has had her theory lesson on that piece.


    It’s taken quite some time to convince her of the need to read music, but she loves her theory activity book, full of stickers and questions, sometimes colouring and last time she actually said thanks, as I’d put it out for her. I have established that routine to engage her whilst I tune and her Dad helps out with that. She’s aurally aware, sings the next note as I tune in 4ths and 5ths so with patience we have made a good start !!
    There are 2 volumes: £3.50, Theory Made Easy for Kids (levels 1and 2) also entitled Theory Made Easy for Little Children, one and the same, probably different print runs, I would recommend these. They have piano pictures on a few pages but the rest is great stuff and she’d like to take it home…. but I’d never see it again..


    I’m going to focus on middle C up to G and down to G,F first to get the octave G to G covered securely and any notes beyond as they occur, some of which she has read before. The concept of the two staves in relation to the harp are important to instill into the pupil’s spatial understanding and then I’ll continue building secure note recognition at a gradual pace. She likes to tell me about notes she’s learnt on the recorder too so am incorporating that too & we played the recorder’s range together (me on recorder, her on harp) so she’ll learn to recognise and fix the whole compass. First time I have had such a young green beginner who hasn’t done recorder first, so I am grabbing the opportunity to teach both staves together. Revisiting earlier pieces facilitates this. Parents would prefer her just to enjoy playing along, so it’s a question of balance, fun, focus and learning.

    Gretchen Cover

    Please keep everyone posted about your student’s progress. It will be interesting to see what works and what you need to tweak for your student to learn to read music.

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