I’ve known this for a while, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore as a piano teacher, perhaps supposing that eventually there will be an epiphany and the student will automatically know it. But sometimes you have to confront the truth. Embarrassing as it may be. I recently decided that it was time to own up to the reality.
What reality, you ask?
The reality that most of my students do not read music fluently.
Are you shocked? Rightfully so.
In my preparations for my most recent workshop (Facts and Fun: Great Games for Teaching Music Theory) that I presented to several local associations, and honest reflections on the quality of performances at our Christmas Recital and Dinner, I finally had to face this reality. Granted, I have a relatively small studio now of students who have only been playing for several years (or less), but I realized that I have no business giving them printed music with notes, terms, symbols, and more that they cannot readily identify and execute at the piano. I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s good to give students a challenge and let them rise to the occasion. But the truth is that I’m not being fair to them when I take this approach. I am not adequately preparing them to successfully play (let alone perform!) some of the printed music I’ve been either assigning them or letting them tackle on their own. In truth, it’s like giving them a Russian novel when they are still struggling to learn the Russian alphabet!
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a huge proponent for creativity, improvisation, and rote technical skill at the piano (none of which is dependent on the ability to read music). But if one of my primary goals is that my students are able to play printed music well, then I needed to make some drastic changes to my teaching approach.
And that’s what I did.
At the beginning of January, I sat all my students down at the beginning of their lesson and asked them to evaluate their own level of fluency in identifying and playing any note on the staff. Most of them knew that they were sorely lacking. The one who didn’t was quickly proved wrong by a brief activity designed to evaluate the aforementioned skill. I continued our heart-to-heart by asking them whose fault they thought that was. Some of them sheepishly mumbled, trying to take the blame. All of them were shocked when I confessed that it was my fault. And one told me that it was okay, that she still thought I was a great teacher. Anyway, I told them that I was putting a halt to the learning of any new pieces of printed music until they had fully mastered every note on the staff (for starters). They nodded in understanding, and we’ve spent the last month working our tails off to learn and master identifying and playing every note on the staff. This is our first step, but I am already seeing such tremendous results that I’m excited to continue in this path to ensure that every one of my students becomes a successful and fluent music reader.
In the hopes that I’m not the only teacher guilty of such notational negligence, I thought I would begin posting the activities, games, and approaches we are using to make this goal of musical fluency a reality (and even have a little fun along the way!). So, stay tuned for fun and practical ideas you can implement in your studio. And if you find yourself at the same point I was and are ready to get serious about making this skill a priority for your students, I highly recommend ordering a box of these Student Flashcards (you can order one box for every two students because there are two of every note in it). I’ll explain how we divide them up and start working step-by-step toward mastery.