Question: I have a student who has taken almost 10 years of piano with me and claims that she can’t read notes. She is a junior in high school and she starts working on her June recital pieces in September. It takes her the entire nine months to learn them. I have tried everything. She depends on her ear, plus I write in a lot of notes for her. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can make the process of reading notes easier for her. She does not “get it.”
Note Reading Reluctance
One of the most frustrating things a piano teacher can be faced with is what I call “The Reluctant Reader”. We’ve all had them….those piano students who insist on memorizing the piece without first learning it properly; the piano students who make slow to no progress; the piano students who turn around and immediately forget a piece they’ve worked on for seven months after just two weeks holidays away from the piano. We’ve all done our best to correct their bad habits during their piano lessons, and we’ve endured months of slow progress when our efforts fall flat. But…suffer no more!
7 strategies for ridding your studio of Reluctant Note Readers:
1) Eliminate the obvious first – I’ve been completely stumped by more than one student to then later figure out they had a vision issue. If you have a young piano student who is seemingly uninterested in learning to read music at all, look for clues that a vision issue is afoot. If you have any doubts, suggest a vision screening test to their parents. You’ll do them a favour in so many other areas of their life as well! Along this same vein – children with dyslexia also often find note reading next to impossible. Encourage dialogue with your student as to why they don’t like to look at their music to help you uncover any possible non-music related issues.
2) Change the way you approach new pieces – You want your students’ sheet music to be valuable to them rather than completely expendable. Students who favour memorization over reading are essentially telling you that their sheet music means nothing to them. When learning a new piece, you should be spending significant amounts of time with the sheet music before your students fingers even touch the keys. Which brings me to number 3.
3) Grab a highlighter – take the time to “chunk up” the piece with your student. Identify patterns, sequences and repeated sections. Make each their own colour so your student can easily look at their music and say “Oh..there’s the pink part again.” To some piano students a full page of sheet music can seem as difficult to decipher as a foreign newspaper. Show them how the piece was constructed, break it into sections and give them the opportunity to discover that piano pieces are not made up of single notes but rather measures of musical ideas. Make their page colourful and user-friendly.
4) Avoid writing in note names at all costs – okay you can sometimes… but really try to avoid falling back on this crutch. When you or I play piano we are not thinking “DGABCDGG”. We are thinking in terms of note direction and intervals. Instead of writing note names or finger numbers on your students page, use markings to show steps, skips, the direction of, and the distances between notes in the places that your student needs extra help. This kind of reading will be more efficient for your student and they’ll be more likely to watch their music while they play (and in turn their note reading will drastically improve).
5) Watch your levelling – these students should not be playing pieces above the level where they can comfortably read. Avoid falling into the trap of assigning repertoire based on what they can play by ear and memorize. Some students become so proficient at this way of playing (as a way of coping) that their note reading is miles behind where their playing skills are. There is lots of repertoire out there that sounds fantastic but is at an approachable level for struggling readers. The more you reinforce the “memorize-first” way of learning a piece, the harder it will be to encourage reading.
6) Make theory immediately relevant – I’m a big proponent of learning theory in context and I’m not a big fan of separate theory book assignments. Use the pieces they are currently working on as the way to teach theory in your lessons. Base your theory lessons around what each of their pieces offers. Use their page to teach theory concepts. Show them the “why” behind their music.
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7) Vary their repertoire – frequently! Most people will stop paying attention to something they have seen over and over again. Pieces that sit on a piano for months on end do nothing for a students’ note-reading abilities. Change up their repertoire and get them reading new music all of the time. Students learn by doing. If you want them to learn to improve their music reading they will need to read music… lots of it! For some this may mean letting go of polishing pieces for performances for a short while while you focus on bringing their note reading skills up to par.
Note Reading Issues ‘No More’
Note reading reluctance in your piano students can be a thing of the past. By adjusting your approach you can take the mystery out of reading notation and give your piano students the tools they need to be successful musicians. Out with the Reluctant Readers and in with the students who “get it”! 🙂