“Mary Had a Little Lamb” has only three notes and three note values, so I find it a good song to teach to absolute beginners. I do not tell the students that they are learning this particular song. They discover that as they follow instructions and play the tune for themselves.
Before learning this song some groundwork needs to be laid. Play the scale match-up game (see article “First Piano Lesson”) or have students practice finding and playing C, D and E on the piano. They can also write out these notes on staff lines for practice. Students also need to learn crotchet, minim and semibreve (quarter, half note and whole note) values and notation. Also, feeling the weak and strong beats of 4/4 timing will help students understand why they will write out bar lines to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which is in 4/4 time.
Using only one note (so students will focus only on rhythm), play the rhythm for the song, one measure at a time. Have students repeat what they hear. Next, have them write out the note values for what they have just played onto a blank sheet of paper. After the symbols for the rhythm are written out, add bar lines. Tell students that every time that the notes add up to 4 beats they can add a bar line.
After students have written out the rhythm and added bar lines, play notes one measure at a time and have students play what they just saw and heard while saying or singing the note names out loud. If a student is young and there is a staircase available, a variation is to assign three steps to the notes C, D and E. Sing the note names and have students hop up or down the stairs to the tune. This is a fun exercise and will help children release some of their energy while learning at the same time! After students play the notes, have them write out the note letters (or sol-fah) above the rhythm that is already notated from the last exercise.
At this point students are ready to play the whole song and they probably will recognize the tune. Have students play from the sheet that they just created. Afterwards, have students draw a staff lines on the same blank sheet, adding the time signature, bar lines, notes and rhythm for the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The students can play the song a few times for assessment, familiarity with the song and for practice on the keyboard. In addition to assigning students to practice “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during the week, a good follow-up assignment is for students to write a simple composition using the method used for learning this song–choose a rhythm, add notes, and notate it on staff paper.
If you are a parent to a young student and you can read some note names, a fun exercise to do with your child would be to sing tunes from a beginner method book and have students hop up and down the staircase to the melody. If you are a student, why not create a composition by creating a rhythm, choosing notes to go along with the rhythm, and writing it all out on staff paper? If you are a teacher, consider teaching this song to beginners since it will help students understand the steps to composing a basic musical composition and because it introduces a variety of simple yet important musical concepts.