Teaching someone to read sheet music over Skype
September 20, 2016 10:34 AM   Subscribe

I may soon find myself teaching a good friend how to read sheet music over Skype. Mostly for singing, as friend doesn't own any instruments. He can carry a tune reasonably well, but he has no idea how printed symbols correspond to notes, rhythms, sounds, etc. Good resources, esp. practice exercises?

I have already discovered the wonder that is musictheory.net. It's pretty fantastic for theory but doesn't seem to have enough exercises.

Is there an online resource that has very simple exercises for friend to practice? Something that starts with "there is only one note, C, and we're only working with whole notes and whole rests" and gradually adds half notes, half rests, then another note or two, etc. A full online copy of, say, Breeze-Easy Method 1 for Flute or similar would work well.

Teachers of music theory, do you have any useful pointers? For example...
- would you teach rhythm or note names first?
- how do you get someone to hear the difference between a half step and a whole step?
- how do you get someone to find the downbeat or stay on the beat?
- are there any mistakes/misconceptions that everyone makes and good ways to explain/correct them?

Any ideas for making this work well over Skype (should I share my screen or should he share his?) would be great too.
posted by danceswithlight to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A more general note on music lessons via Skype: there's enough of a delay that you won't be able to make live music together. My dad, who is a tech-friendly music teacher, has used me as a guinea pig for some distance learning ideas he's had. At 120 bpm, we were about an eighth note off of each other, and even more frustrating, it wasn't perfectly consistent. If you want to use a metronome, make sure he has one to set when he is singing for you, so you know all the audio is coming in at once. The same is true vice-versa.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:50 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

What you want are the basics of reading music (like this or this), and then basic sight-singing exercises, like this or this.

However, rather than just giving him a bunch of links, please consider helping your student learn to find these resources himself. There are several reasons:

0) Interacting more with the material in a non-stressful way will help learning - a lot. It's fundamental to [what little I know about] modern teaching methods.

1) If he goes looking for them himself, he feel free to find ones that are just right in terms of difficulty, instead of trying repeatedly to do what you recommend (because he'll think he "should" be able to get it) and just getting frustrated;

2) This kind of interaction with the material gives a sense of control to what can be a very intimidating process, which is very important.

4) The act of searching and sifting through stuff is a little addictive/gamelike, so it will make the process more compelling for him;

5) If you aren't available to help him all the time (and who is), he can fill in/enrich the experience by finding more resources to work on;

6) After you stop working together, he can learn more on his own or reinforce what he's learned with old or newly-discovered resources.
posted by amtho at 11:28 AM on September 20, 2016

Unless Skype has got better recently it has very poor latency which makes musical interaction hard - you won’t be able to sing simultaneously for instance.

If this bothers you, then you could try a lower latency VOIP product - Mumble is the obvious free solution.
posted by pharm at 11:51 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not a music teacher, but I'm currently taking sight-singing classes. I'm in the second year. Here is how things have gone so far:

We started with 2/4 time and quarter notes in Do Major. We're learning solfege with a fixed Do (Do = middle C). For the first lesson, the only note we sang was Do: just a line of Do quarter notes. Our teacher always makes us count the beat with one hand while we sing, similar to the movements conductors make when they're keeping time. After the first lesson, we started adding new notes slowly. First Re, then Mi a week later, and then on up the scale. After a month or two, we started adding eighth notes, but we stayed in Do Major in 2/4 time. We also learned the quarter rest and the eighth rest somewhere in there.

Once we knew all the main notes in the Sol clef, we started learning 3/4 time along with dotted quarter notes and sixteenth notes. That was after 4 months of practice. After that we started learning 4/4 time and different keys ( Fa Major and Sol Major mainly) and learning how to sing sharps and flats. After 8 months of practice, we started learning how to sing syncope and some off-beat stuff.

When we were just starting out, our teacher would sing the sheet music once and then ask us to try it. Sometimes she stops us when we get something really wrong. Sometimes she lets us finish and then has us back up and try a bit again. After a couple of months, she started just giving us the first note and then asking us to try singing the whole thing. That didn't work very well at first, but it's a lot easier after a year's worth of practice.

Throughout the whole time, we've done ear training. She plays half-steps and whole steps on the piano and we have to say if it's a major second or a minor second. We also practice singing intervals, and singing scales, and singing the three notes of various chords.
posted by colfax at 12:50 PM on September 20, 2016

Music teacher here. The key training techniques you want are "ear training" and "sight singing". They are vital for internalizing intervals and centering pitch. There will be overlap with basic theory (identifying key/time signatures, note values, etc.), which will be all your friends really needs to know.

(Intermediate and advanced music theory are geared towards composition and explain why chords progress in the manner they do, etc, etc.)

You cannot teach voice like you can an instrument, because (most) instruments roughly get you in the ballpark of the correct pitch if you simply get the fingering right. Voice has no such luxury. It is vital to be able to hear intervals in your head.

colfax's recap is a very common approach. I'm betting colfax will eventually move on to music dictation, which puts everything together -- a teacher will play a simple melody and you have to transcribe it on staff paper.

Anyway. You have to be flexible with how your friend learns. There are ear training and sight singing apps out there that he can use. If rhythm becomes difficult, I'd focus on just tapping out rhythms with a metronome playing. Drills are a vital element of practice and drills take all forms - from starting painfully slow to deliberately exaggerating rhythms.

The other highly effective teaching technique is mimicry. And while you can do call-and-response style teaching over Skype, I always find that playing/singing together is *extremely* effective. The student plays while the teacher counts time and difficult rhythms. Once the student has internalized counting, both the student and teacher play in unison. And as the student gains confidence, they graduate to duets.

It will be very difficult to assess certain issues over Skype due to lag. Your primary job as a teacher is to give your friend the skills to learn how to practice effectively. That can include tricks like recording himself, then listening to playback, writing sub-divisions in his music, researching, etc, etc.

The fundamentals of pedagogy are a skill into their own right, and you'll likely find that teaching someone else a skill is a very good test of how well *you* know that skill, yourself. If things don't go well, it might be best to suggest a private voice teacher, ideally one who works with adults.
posted by Wossname at 2:22 PM on September 20, 2016

Oh, Wossname reminded me: we've also been doing music dictation this whole time which helps train your ear. We do melodic dictation, where you just try and write down the notes without having to deal with rhythm, rhythmic dictation where you do the opposite (rhythm without notes), and full dictation where you have to worry about both. For the first six months, we just did dictation in 2/4 time in Do Major with quarter and eighth notes, plus the quarter rest. Over time we've added 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 time along with dotted quarter notes and things like an eighth note with two sixteenth notes. In the second year, we've just started doing dictation in Fa Major and Sol Major.

Truly learning how to sight sing is a pretty large endeavor. My music school considers you to be a beginner for 3 years, and we take 2.5 hours of sight-singing classes a week for 10 months a year. I think if you want to teach your friend to get more comfortable with sheet music, so he can use it as a rough guide when singing in a casual choir, then that's probably a pretty achievable goal. But teaching him over skype to really be able to sight sing is going to be a very big, long-term project.
posted by colfax at 3:48 AM on September 21, 2016

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