I have seen this subject come up quite a bit in piano teacher groups. So I’ll tell you all a story.

I have a student.

The kid is brilliant. Not only that, he is sweet and hardworking. He started learning to play the piano with me at four years old he’s eight now. I’ll call him Johnny.

He has an amazing ear. He can play just about anything he hears. He also plays really musically. At the last recital, he brought the house down with his rendition of Cindy Lauper’s  “True Colors”.

I didn’t teach it to him. He heard it and came up with his own arrangement. It was so moving that people literally had tears in their eyes. After that, half my studio requested the opportunity to learn to cover this song.

The one little thing about Johnny is that he resisted reading music. Part of it was that he was so young when he started and so very talented that his technique and musicality far outpaced his notation reading abilities. The other part is, he is also a normal kid, who likes to do lots of things including, sports, art, etc. So I’m guessing in his mind reading music notation didn’t take top priority. In fact, spending his time and effort ciphering all of those little black dots on the staff probably didn’t make much sense to him. After all, why would anyone want to do things the hard way?

The fact is that it is human nature to take the path of least resistance. (Scientific Daily). We are hardwired to expedite tasks in the past our survival depended on it. So it should not be surprising that some musicians find it easier to learn music without using the notation. It should also not be surprising that kids are…well…kids.

My ultimate goal is to teach my students to play the piano. So that when they are old like me they can still sit down and play the music that will bring joy to themselves and others. I also want them to have the proper training so that they can take their musical skill to a professional level if they wish to.

I will move heaven and earth to make this happen.

How do I do this?

My number one priority is to help my students keep going. Actually, this is my only priority, because if they quit I have no chance of reaching my goals.

As long as they want to learn to play and are willing to put in some effort I will do what it takes to keep them from quitting. This means meeting them where they are and understanding each individual personality and learning style.

This means since I am trying to keep my goal of helping my students become lifelong players I know I must constantly adjust my teaching methods.

And learn new skills myself.

In the case of Johnny, I know that if I had strictly insisted on the traditional method book approach and tried to demand that he read all of his music this talented boy would probably be long gone. I believe this could be a loss to myself, to Johnny, to his family, and possibly to the world of music.


So here’s how it’s been playing out.

Luckily, Johnny’s parents are amazingly supportive. Plus, his parents love music and they listen to it all of the time. (Which is why the kid is so musical in the first place.)

When Johnny was a little guy I let him explore. I tried traditional method books but he really didn’t take to them. So we worked on technique and improvisation. We always had some readable music around and spent some time on it. I could tell he was resistant to reading so we focused on his strengths and learned his favorite popular songs by ear.

When he got a little older (around six or seven) I made a deal with him that we would spend ten minutes of his lesson time on reading notes and rhythm and the rest on really trying to figure out what he was playing.

He understood that scales were important for the purpose of learning chords and figuring out what sharps and flats to play. So whatever song or piece of music worked on, we started with the corresponding scale and leaning the numbered scale degrees.

I had him listen, and listen, and listen some more throughout the week to whatever music it was he was trying to learn. (Although, usually this wasn’t necessary because he already knew it.) Sometimes, it was me who had to learn the music because he knew the song better than I did. As a result, I have learned a lot of new songs!

In addition, we are always working on theory, transposition, chord substitutions, blues, and improvisation. All by ear, (never by rote) and building an understanding of theory.

There’s more  in the post

Teaching Students to Play by Ear

All throughout this journey I took opportunities to point out the value of learning to read music notation. To show Johnny, that reading music has value and can actually be the easier way to learn music in many cases.

I have had a mantra.

“You are a very smart kid, when you decide it’s worth your while to learn to read music well, you will.”

Guess what?

At eight years old Johnny is learning to read. It’s not always a straight-line journey but he’s getting better every week. I always knew he could do it. When it comes right down to it I think learning to read music is easier than learning to do what has come so naturally for him.

Actually, you can play very well without reading. Conversely, you can play very well without learning to play by ear or improvise.

So my fellow teachers, why is this such a problem for us?

Because many of our music schools and conservatories haven’t taught us to play by ear or improvise. Popular music (and even jazz in some cases) was considered taboo and not taught or encouraged. I love popular music. I grew up on Long Island N.Y. at the time when Billy Joel was just getting famous and was the inspiration for a generation of piano players. But my teachers didn’t let me spend any lesson time on music like this.

I always joke that I couldn’t play anything when I got out of music school. I had to spend years learning to play Church music and pop music, and I’m still working on Blues and Jazz.

Students like Johnny have made me a better teacher and a better musician.

I know it can be a challenge, but I ask that you don’t give up on students who seem to resist reading music. There are so many resources out there that can help us learn new skills. If you’re ready to take on the challenge, go ahead, step outside of the box, and go for it.

If teaching pop music and playing by ear just isn’t your lane that’s ok. Very few teachers are experts in every area. Encourage your students and send them to a teacher who likes working with this type of student.

I would ask that you do your best to keep kids with great ears that resist reading music going. It’s well worth the effort.

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