Monday Mailbag – Teaching Reading and Rhythm Skills to Students Who Already Play at an Intermediate Level

What kind of approach do you use for older transfer students who have trouble with reading and rhythm, without hurting their self-esteem or making them feel incompetent? I have one 12-year old transfer student who had been taught how to play the piano by rote, though he plays at an intermediate level. I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t have any foundation in theory or reading at all. I’d appreciate any suggestions you have!

Unfortunately, this seems to be an all-too common phenomenon in the piano teaching world. I have had numerous students start studying with me who have already learned to play up to an intermediate level of piano repertoire, but have no idea how to count rhythms or read printed music fluently. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Be glad that the student is still interested in studying piano! The truth of the matter is that we all have gaps and weaknesses in our music knowledge and playing ability. Accept and embrace each student wherever they are and consider what an incredible privilege it is to be able to share your love of music with them and help equip them for a lifetime of playing the piano.

2. Be honest with the student about their gaps. If the student has come to you as a transfer, they obviously still want to learn, and believe that you have something to teach them. Don’t try to gloss over their weak areas; if they are struggling with a rhythm, tell them you can see that they haven’t internalized how to count out rhythms, so you want to help them learn to do this fluently. If they take forever to figure out a note, make the observation that they are not up-to-speed in note reading and you are going to come up with some ways to help them develop instantaneous recognition of notes.

3. Be intentional in developing strategies to help the student succeed. Spend time thinking about the student and what you can do to help them learn the essential musical skills of rhythm and reading. It may involve having them learn entire books of early level supplementary pieces with duets so you can play along with them. Or maybe you will have them pick out familiar tunes by ear and then learn how to notate them with the correct note placement and rhythmic values. Perhaps they will learn conducting patterns and practice conducting their pieces while counting out the rhythms. Or maybe a sheet of rhythm drills could be used as an improvisation exercise where the student can make up and play melodies or chord progressions using a line of rhythm. There are so many possibilities for creatively addressing these needs in a way that keeps the process interesting for any level of student!

4. Be willing to listen. Ask lots of questions and let the student openly share where they feel like they are struggling, how they are feeling about their assignments, and ideas they have for further approaches to develop these areas. Find out how motivated the student is to even work on areas like rhythm and reading. Do they see value in it? Do they understand how these skills are relevant to their playing ability and future success as a pianist? You may have to take some time not just to teach these things, but also to convince students that they are worth learning!

5. Be open-minded about how you teach and what the student plays. The worst thing you can do is hone in so much on the details of rhythm and note reading that it saps the joy of music-making right out of the student. Always make sure that the student still has other things to play that are full of music and fun. Here are a couple of possibilities:

I imagine this will continue to be an issue for teachers forever, so if anyone has other tried-and-true approaches for helping older students develop rhythm and reading skills, please share! It would be great to have as many ideas as possible!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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