Power Up! Step by Step: Building the Foundations for Successful Music Learning

Foundations for Successful Music Learning

It is a musician’s job to synthesize rhythms, note names, pitches, articulations, expressions, sound, and more…all at once. Dr. Anita Collins, who is an educator, researcher, and writer in the field of brain development and music learning, says that “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout.” Applying all of those skills when you are learning a new piece of music can feel particularly daunting. But by systematically breaking down these elements and scaffolding practice steps, we can more easily help our growing musicians access new music with less frustration and greater accuracy. What’s more, purposeful utilization of these steps will help students more closely examine the individual elements that combine to create the music they are playing, impacting their development both as individuals and as part of an ensemble.

Below are some steps for you to lead your students through and some activities for them to engage in to help guide the music learning process.

1. Get a feel for the big picture

Get a sense for what you are about to play. Is the piece relatively long or short? Do you see any obvious repetitions of material, including repeat signs or other “road map” markings? What is the piece’s key signature and time signature? Is the tempo slow, medium, or fast? Is there a specific style indicated? Once you have a sense of the piece, try these exercises to build readiness:

Key Signature

Determine the key signature and tonality of the piece.

  • Discuss the key signature as it relates to each individual instrument, and put your fingers on any special key signature notes, both on the page and via fingerings directly on the instrument. Remember that this might mean a natural if the note is normally played flat or sharp (ex: B-natural for concert-pitched instruments; F-natural for alto and bari saxophones).
  • Play the scale associated with the key, or if the piece has a limited range, perhaps just the first 5 notes. Be sure to isolate the 4th pitch in major keys with flats and the 7th pitch in sharp major keys, potentially playing pitches 1 through 5 up and down, followed by a lowered pitch 7 before returning to pitch 1. 

Time signature

Define the organization of beats in each measure, including the appropriate beat inflections (ex: in 3/4 time, beat 3 generally leads to beat 1, so no breath between beats 3 and 1!).

  • Audibly count the time signature, including the subdivisions. Demonstrate the appropriate beat inflections.
  • Conduct the pattern associated with the time signature. 


Identify any tempo indications included in the piece.

  • Select a comfortable working tempo. Regardless of the written tempo, choose a tempo that will allow for student success and accuracy from the start. Stick with this tempo unless there is a specific tempo change written in the music.
  • Get the metronome going and repeat the previous time signature steps, then continue its use as you move through the next steps.

  Teaching Tip: Try to get your students tapping their toes! It’s a great way to help them feel the beat, and will be a valuable addition to all of the steps that follow!

2. Start learning the music with a small section

(“Small section” could mean a measure, a phrase, a movement, etc.) Depending on the overall challenges of a piece and my awareness of the ensemble and individual student needs, I might start with a section that will be relatively accessible or I might start with a more challenging section, or maybe even the most challenging section! In any case, consider these steps and exercises:

Rhythms only

Reminding students of the time signature, focus on learning the rhythm only for the section.

  • Check in with students—are there any rhythms they are unsure how to count?
  • Have the students count and clap the section. If needed, break the ensemble up into smaller groups to help them identify their “team.”

  Teaching Tip: If you break the students into smaller groups, keep them all working toward the team goals by having them quietly count the subdivided time signature to match the metronome when it is not their turn.

  • Reviewing the key signature (found in Step 1, Get a feel for the big picture above), play the rhythms on the key’s concert pitch. Focus on accurate note starts and releases. Have students lightly tongue the start of each note for slurred passages.

  Extension: Have students “bop” the notes (play only the initial note starts with no duration) to better assess rhythmic accuracy and allow students to more quickly notice how their part fits in with others. This is also a great exercise to use once written pitches are added in! 

Add the notes

Reminding students of the key signature, add the notes to the established rhythms.

  • Give students a moment to check their individual parts. Remind them of key signature notes and accidentals as appropriate. Are there any notes they are unsure of that they need help with, or fingerings that they need to verify with a section-mate or a fingering chart?
  • Guide students through the following steps. Encourage them to keep going even if they miss a note name or make a similar mistake, but to then review their mistake or ask questions in between steps or repetitions of steps. (Note—all opportunities to practice fingerings below should be done as “air drumming” for non-mallet percussionists. Mallet percussionists should touch the instrument bars with their fingers.)
    1. Say the note names aloud along with the metronome.
    2. Practice the fingerings directly on the instrument while saying the note names.
    3. Count out loud while practicing the fingerings through the section.
    4. “Tizzle” the rhythms while practicing the fingerings. Percussionists should continue to “air drum” while counting out loud, and wind players should “look like they are playing” with proper playing position and posture.
    5. Play the part on instruments.

  Teaching Tip: If students are struggling, you may need to back up a step or two for select groups or as a whole, or break the ensemble down into smaller groups just like you did in the rhythms. If that’s the case, keep all students involved by having them “tizzle” or count when not playing.

Now the details

Look for the articulation and style markings, dynamic markings, overt phrase indicators, and implied phrase shapes. Work to add them into the section to really turn those rhythms and notes into music!

  Teaching Tip: Be sure you clearly define how you want these details to be played. What note shape do you want for accents? Where is the height of the crescendo? Explain what any markings mean and how to play them on each instrument. Don’t be afraid to demonstrate what you want to hear from the students (bonus benefit—you’ll help them develop a concept of characteristic sound!).

3. Select the best “next step” to learn even more music!

(Depending on your goals and choices for scaffolding, this step can happen before or after adding the “details” in Step 2, Now the details)—just remember to go back and add the details if you initially skip over them. There are many options for how to move on after learning a section of the music. You can choose to:

  • Bookend this section (starting with this section, continue the above process with a little bit of music right before and after the section, continuing in this manner until you build a large section).
  • Repeat these steps with a nearby section, then combine with this section to form a larger chunk of music.
  • Look for this section elsewhere in the piece to make repetitive connections.

Things to keep in mind:

    ALWAYS play with your best sound—even when you are playing something for the first time! Being able to sound amazing when playing something new is a sign of great air and embouchure habits!

    Slow and steady wins the race. Trying to play music faster than you can accurately access it will not build a strong foundation for learning a piece or demonstrate appropriate musical skills. Be patient, and make incremental metronome changes as you are ready.  

    It is important to constantly assess readiness for moving through the steps. If another repetition is needed, take it. If the tempo needs to be altered, change it. If you need to go back a few steps or can move through the steps more quickly, do it. Allow yourself to stay in a constant feedback loop and make real-time pacing decisions based on student feedback (both what they may say and what you hear them play!).

    The steps listed above can also serve as a framework for an ensemble or individual sight-reading routine, and can be used to establish an effective individual practice routine.

    Did you know that MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) has a lot of tools to help you through these steps? In any piece of music, you can choose to isolate measures, set parameters to repeat selected measures, turn on the metronome, adjust the tempo, and much more!

 Learning new music can be challenging, but if we focus on stringing together small, attainable goals, we set ourselves up for success. As Desmond Tutu once wisely said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

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Tiffany Hitz is Director of Bands, Music Department Chair, and Co-Lead Mentor at Rachel Carson Middle School in Fairfax County, VA. A member of the Virginia Music Educators Association, she is currently on the state’s New Music Grading Committee and Conference Registration Staff and chairs the Assessment Adjudicator Training committee for the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association. Mrs. Hitz is a member of the National Band Association, currently serving on the Board of Directors as a Middle School Representative. She received the Outstanding Music Education Alumni Award from VCU School of the Arts in 2018 and is an inducted member of Phi Beta Mu International Bandmasters Fraternity and the American School Band Directors Association. Mrs. Hitz has also been recognized by the School Band and Orchestra Magazine as one of the “Fifty Directors Who Make a Difference.” She maintains an active schedule as a clinician, guest conductor, and adjudicator throughout the United States.

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