Reading Music: Another Language
When I go to the book store, I sometimes I like to wander into the foreign book section and rifle through a random book in a language I am unfamiliar with. You know what usually strikes me? I can’t read anything. As music teachers, we sometimes forget that this is how students look at music in the beginning. And what is the difference between music notation and a spoken language? I think that if we thought about it we would find that the only difference is that music notation is made up of less symbols, and the formula used to figure out new symbols is repetitive and self-explanatory. It should be easier than learning Spanish or French; there are very few exceptions to the rules in music notation.
From Careful to Confident
The way to teach music reading during private piano lessons in home for me is always about reading the musical language the same way you would teach any language. Decode the symbols and really look at the letters (or notes) and understand what they mean. The
more you read the symbols, the less you have to think about it. When students see that F# followed by the G# for the fiftieth time, they are going to start to hear the pattern before they even play the notes.
Thoughtful repetition turns the scratches on the page into a readable language, and that in turn changes the mindset of the student from careful to confident. Who likes playing music when they are scared of the next note they play because they can’t match the instrument to the written music?
Clap and Sing
So how can we make it more like any other language? While teaching private piano lessons in home, we can use the comfort and security of the environment and really take things slow. I always ask my students all kinds of questions, just to see if they know what they are doing. That sounds overly simple, but if I ask a question like: “how much value does this note get?” and the student takes forever to answer, I start to think we have to do some straight reading.
Sometimes we can take the instrument away, and if the student isn’t too shy, we can do some singing or clapping. Rhythm-wise, if they can’t clap it, they probably can’t play it. Singing too for pitches, although that applies more to strings and winds than to piano since pitch accuracy is the one thing piano students don’t have to think about! For any instrument though, If a student can figure out how to turn those marks on the page into pitches and rhythms with their voice, they are that much closer to being experts in speaking their new language.
It can be humbling for students to read new music. It can also be frustrating, which is why often times it can be hard for me for introduce sight reading into private piano lessons in home. To see the student stop and start and struggle can be difficult for any teacher to watch. As tempting as it can be to just sing, clap, or even play it for them, I truly believe they really have to break through those barriers on their own. It might cause them slightly more frustration, but in the end the will remember what they learned in that moment.
We can’t spoon feed them! My students know that as they play and find something challenging or if I tell them they did something incorrectly, they can’t look to me for the answer because I will almost always direct the question back to them. “What do you think that note is? Is that a quarter note or an eighth note?” Once they are trained to think for themselves and find the solution with some guided questions, they may even start asking themselves those questions. The other day a student of mine played something wrong and I simply said “nope”. She then asked her self under her breath “skip or step? Up or down?” She figured out her mistake and kept playing. Proud teacher moment! I believe that method creates amazing little sight readers.
On the other side of that barrier, the student can read music fluently; they can look at those notes and hear tunes in their head; they can internalize the music in a few runs because of their understanding of the language. It is amazing how fast students learn to read when they just expose themselves to new music constantly. We didn’t learn to speak English by speaking and listening to it once a week or so. We were surrounded by it from birth and eventually it became second nature. While we may not start our children in private piano lessons in home the second he/she enters the world, but the sooner they start learning to read music and the more often they are expected to sight read, the sooner music too will be second nature.
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