I tell my students that music reading is our burden to bear. I played the violin all through school and reading the treble clef one note at a time was a piece of cake. Of course, there was all of that annoying tone and intonation to focus on. The bow arm position and vibrato: it’s all pretty complicated.
Pianists have two hands that operate the same way; no problems with intonation, embouchure, or vibrato. But what we do have is two clefs and a lot of notes! The only people who have more notes than us are organists.
Teaching most students to read music well is no easy task! But when students can read well our lives as teachers is so much easier! Some of my students learn to read very easily, for most, it takes some more effort. There are a few who have a really tough time learning to read music notation.
Know your student
In my experience, most piano students fall into one of two categories. Visual learners and auditory learners. Because it is human nature to take the path of least resistance visual learners tend to look at the score and auditory learners tend to try to pick things up by ear.
Some students take to reading easily. They have an easy time connecting what’s going on in the score with what happens on the keyboard. Others have naturally great ears and can hear something and learn it without looking at the music very much for these students reading seems counterproductive.
As a teacher, it is crucial that I watch and listen carefully to see how each student is learning.
How to Begin
I can honestly say I became so frustrated with many of the piano method books available that I wrote my own. I recommend you stay away from any method books that have hand positions and fingerings over every note. Use a method that introduces new concepts slowly and gives students plenty of time to absorb what they are learning. You may also want to use more than one method and always have lots of supplemental music.
Downplay Mnemonic Devices
I start my students with middle C and we go from there. I don’t even mention “every good boy does fine” I use this only as a reference, it can be helpful to help a student find the first note of a piece. That’s it though, no counting lines and spaces.
How Music is Read
Piano music is read by seeing patterns and transferring those patterns into music on the keyboard. Think about it. As an experienced pianist, do you ever think about note names while you are playing?
The score is a picture of what happens on the keyboard.
Notes go up. Notes go down, skips, jumps, chords, repeated notes. It’s all very logical. I tell my students that, what the music looks like is what it is. It never tricks you. This may all seem obvious, but it isn’t. I have found that pointing this out to my students really helps them to make the connection between the score and the keyboard.
In the Beginning
Start with a few notes and expand slowly. I start with treble C through G and then add Bass C through G. Making sure that my student is understanding and able to play these notes I begin expanding the notes until all of the treble and bass clef are covered. Then accidentals, chords, different keys, etc. All of this happens as students are learning to count and understand rhythm as well. The process is fairly straightforward, but it takes work and persistence.
Practice is Key
Of course, you can be an expert at teaching and see very little progress if your student isn’t practicing at home. So, it is imperative that your students do their part. I talk about the subject of motivating students to practice in my book “The Happiest Piano Teacher in Town: Empowering Teachers to Inspire Students”
The Most Important Time to Practice
I want my students to practice every day, however, I tell my students to practice on the day of their lesson after the lesson is over and as early as possible the next day. This is because in order for information to go from short-term to long-term memory it must be repeated within about 24 hours of being presented. If a student waits a few days before coming back to the piano and practicing, much, if not all, will be lost.
At the Lesson
I do my best to sit back and let my students figure things out. When a student starts a new piece, I let her take a look at it and try to read through the score. I may begin by asking, what is the key and time signature? How will you count the rhythm in measure 3? If my student gets stuck, I encourage her to try and figure things out.
I will ask, do the notes go up or down? Is that a skip or a step? How do you count the rhythm in measure three? I keep coming back to the point that they can learn to read well, that music notation makes sense and that learning to read is worth the effort.
When a Student Just Isn’t Getting It
Usually, these things work but there are times when I really need to work hard with a student to help him to learn to read.
In my experience, these are usually students who have very good auditory skills and can get by without learning to read. Years ago, I had a student who had such a good ear that he could learn pieces like “First Arabesque” by Debussy by ear!! The only way I could get him to read music was to find obscure music and change pieces every week. (Now you may ask why a student like that would have to bother learning to read music in the first place, but that’s another discussion entirely).
With these types of students, I give them lots of new music to look at. I also allow them to learn music by ear as a separate skill. I strike a bargain, so to speak, “learn your minuet and then listen to and learn to play “Piano Man”.
Reading Isn’t Everything
I want my students to learn to play…period! There are all sorts of reasons why students have problems learning to read music.
A student might be too young to grasp the concept.
It may be that a student needs glasses and can’t see the music well.
Maybe he just doesn’t practice.
Some students just don’t see the point. Like the ones I mentioned above who can play everything by ear.
Whatever it takes, I do my best to keep all of my students engaged. If a student quits, all is lost. I would rather focus on playing by ear for a while if necessary.
A Few More Tips
Create a print-rich environment.
Music notation is beautiful in and of itself!
Classroom teachers know that having lots of words and print in the classroom environment helps students to learn to read. We can create a musical print-rich environment in our studios by having musical posters and examples of music readily available.
At home, students should have more than one piano book. Give them lots of different music to look at. Let them see what you are playing.
If you are watching a YouTube video look for one that has the musical score scrolling by as the music plays.
Be careful to make sure any music notation your students are exposed to is accurate. We have all seen music bags and sweatshirts with backward treble clefs and keys sigs that feature flats and sharps at the same time.
Give your students a pencil and some staff paper, let them write some music of their own. This is a great way for them to strengthen their note-reading skills.
Apps, Flashcards, and Note Spellers
Ehh… I use them here and there. They may help a little and they can be fun but honestly, I don’t believe they do much to create excellent readers. This is because music is about seeing patterns it’s about learning to hear and play what you see before you on the page. This is why isolating notes doesn’t do much to improve music reading skills.
Be a Cheerleader
Encourage any progress you encounter. Celebrate success. Acknowledge, the fact that music study is hard work, but add that hard work is good.
I started doing this when we went online. I started giving certain students 10 minutes a day, 5 days per week. During this time we just work on not reading using my “Super Shorties” and “Reading Rx” workbooks. You can use any appropriate music with your students.
Usually, two weeks of practice buddy lessons get them over the “hump” and they start to feel more comfortable with reading music notation.
Words Have Power!
I never let my students say “It’s too hard” or “I can’t do it.” I substitute these phrases for phrases like “It’s challenging” or I can’t do it yet.”
My favorite word
My favorite word is “imagine.”
“Imagine how it will feel when you can pick up any piece of music and read easily.”
I believe it is important to keep the vision alive and let students know that it is attainable.
It’s worth it to help students learn to read music fluently. Being able to easily cipher music notation makes playing music much more joyful. This ensures that the piano will be part of your student’s life for years to come!
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