Power Up! The Foundations of Music Literacy, Part 2

Foundations of Music Literacy 2

Alicia DeSoto & Chris Meredith are currently band directors at Lewisville High School in Lewisville ISD, TX. 

Literacy: the ability to read and write
Music Literacy: the ability to read, write, and play music

Click here to read part 1.

Style & articulation markings

You have gotten your students reading rhythms and notes more confidently. Mission accomplished? Not so fast. If we want our students to create musical ideas and convey meaning while performing, then they must be fluid in clearly demonstrating note length and front of note clarity to communicate style when making music.

As we have attempted to build skills for our students to become more independent music readers and confident music performers, it is important to recognize that approaching the skills of articulation and note length control on a daily basis will allow our students to achieve a higher level of clarity in their musical expression. 

Provide students with a style/articulation sheet for daily performance use. Organize the sheet so that everything is performed on one pitch and that style markings are isolated to each measure. In 4/4 time, you can have four tenuto quarter notes, followed by four staccato quarters, followed by four lifted quarters, etc. The same can be done with eight tenuto eighth notes, followed by eight staccato eighths, etc. Isolating one style at a time gives kids a chance to focus on one element at a time, which will lead to mastery and understanding more quickly than layering all styles at once.

For best results, assign a specific syllable to go with each different articulation style for more consistency and faster sound to symbol recognition. It is a magical day when a full band ensemble can quickly match note length while singing through an articulation exercise with specific syllables. Using their voices to recreate the music and building the ear awareness to match is critical to reaching the highest level of interactive music making.

Finally, continue to insist that each student is actively reading the articulation sheet as they play even if the page is easy to memorize. The outcome we want is to instill literacy so the more opportunities students have to connect the visible symbols to the desired audible style of each note, the better.


We’ve found that teaching students how to play dynamics on their instrument physically is very different from teaching students to play the dynamic markings on their page. Teaching students how to play stronger and softer with a beautiful, in-tune tone is done through modeling; while teaching students when to play these dynamics is a whole different lesson. Think about all of the decoding that needs to happen for a student to 1) identify a dynamic marking on the page, 2) remember the abbreviation, 3) translate the abbreviation from Italian to English, 4) consider what volume they were already playing and decide if they should switch to a stronger or softer volume, and 5) in a full band piece, consider how their part relates to the other melody/harmony/accompaniment lines in the composition and further forecast their dynamic appropriately. That’s a lot to think about for a teeny tiny little “mp” on the page, and that’s assuming they even noticed the “mp” to start!

Here are some fun activities to reinforce the recognition of dynamic markings on the page of music. Pass out a piece of new music and have students highlight or count all of the dynamic markings on the page as fast as possible. This gets their eyes used to spotting these markings, much like a fun word search or picture comparison game.

We have jars of colored pencils readily available in the front of the room. Students are shown that they can color code their dynamics, if that helps to get the markings to jump off the page. We prefer shades of red and orange for stronger dynamics (warm colors), and blues and purples for softer dynamics (cool colors). The simple act of color coding the music is a great tactile activity to reinforce the dynamics too. This activity certainly doesn’t need to be used for all music forever, but really helps some learners have a better awareness of the markings on the music initially.

To further reinforce the significance of the dynamic markings, students play the rhythm of the music on only one note (could be the tonic of the phrase, a home base note on the instrument, or another note that needs to be fortified) and only focus on the changes in dynamics. In a classroom setting, half the students could play the real notes, while the other half of the students play the repeated note with the dynamic focus, and then switch roles. This would allow the stagnant note students to really dive into the dynamics, and provide a great model for the students who are changing notes.

In addition to reading and playing the dynamics that are marked on the page, we also teach our students about phrase shaping and directional dynamics. When first applying this information, we have students put a little star above the note that will act as the peak of the musical phrase, and have students lean into and out of the star with dynamic nuance. Students are inherently ready for this step sooner than we think—a musical phrase is much like a spoken sentence, and students will instinctively know how to ebb and flow their spoken cadence. When given the structure of dynamic contrast and direction regarding the peak of a phrase, students will start shaping their musical ideas in a more mature manner.


Trust the process! By separating these literacy skills into different segments, it may seem that your students are playing less music in class because they are spending more time working on note name, rhythm, articulation/style, and dynamic activities. Teaching and assessing only one thing at a time will give students the skills they need so that when they do work on music, they are able to put it together much faster and more accurately. This will propel students past the printed stuff on the page and into the elements that aren’t written down, such as tuning, tone, balance, etc. Get the students to read with their eyes so effectively that their brain is able to shift to the gear that uses their ears—where the real music making happens.

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Alicia DeSoto serves as Associate Director of Bands at Lewisville High School in Lewisville, Texas. Mrs. DeSoto earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas, and her Master of Music in Music Education degree from Southern Methodist University. She is an active guest clinician, lecturer, and adjudicator and has professional affiliations with the Texas Bandmasters Association, Texas Music Educators Association, and Texas Music Adjudicators Association. She currently serves as the TMEA Region 2 Vice President. Current projects include the Musical Mastery Beginner Band series with Asa Burk, Kathy Johnson, Chris Meredith, and Dominic Talanca. As the chief editor for Musical Mastery, Mrs. DeSoto has enjoyed the opportunity to compile an instrument-specific beginner curriculum to share with thousands of students throughout the country.


cmeredithChris Meredith is currently the Director of Bands at Lewisville High School in Lewisville, Texas. Prior to his position at Lewisville, Mr. Meredith served as Director of Bands at Shadow Ridge Middle School in Flower Mound, Texas for thirteen years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of North Texas and a graduate degree in Music Education from Southern Methodist University. Meredith is an active adjudicator, author, guest clinician, and lecturer, and is honored to have professional affiliations with Texas Bandmasters Association, Texas Music Educators Association, Texas Music Adjudicators Association, and Phi Beta Mu. Current projects include the Musical Mastery educational band series with Asa Burk, Alicia DeSoto, Kathy Johnson, and Dominic Talanca. 

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