Monday Mailbag – Music Reading Dilemma

I’ve got a question for you about children who fail to progress. I’ve got 3 students who have been playing for quite a while – I think all of them started 2 and a half years ago – but they’ve all just failed to progress. I started teaching them using a middle C method and in all this time they still cannot read notes in middle C position. I constantly drill, play games, use guide notes, go over old material, assign games from musiclearningcommunity.com; but nothing is working. If it was just one of them I’d think “oh well, I’ll just keep trying” but because it’s three, I guess some of it must be me. I’m not sure how great their practice is – they tell me they work, but who knows. Do you have any great ideas? Have you ever had students like this?

Ha! Has any teacher not had a student like this?! 🙂 I have found that these types of students usually fall into two categories:

1. Non-practicers

2. Non-intuitive music readers (usually these students are stronger aurally than visually)

For the non-practicers, or those that I suspect have the ability to excel in this area but just aren’t putting in the effort, here are the things I would try:

  • Have a “practice lesson.” I explain to the student that I am holding a practicing evaluation day. I will sit to the side of the room with a clipboard and piece of paper and take notes. Meanwhile, they are to go through a practice session exactly as they would at home. On my paper, I make a list of the things the student did well/effectively and the things they need to improve. This is very revealing. Based on my assessment, we go over each assignment one at a time and I walk them through an effective way to practice. This helps me see if they have trouble finding their starting notes, how they handle difficulties, how many times they practice each piece, etc.
  • Write a detailed list of assignments and require the student to place a checkmark in a corresponding column for each day that they practice that particular assignment (here’s an example of a generic assignment page/practice journal that I have used for this purpose).
  • Call or e-mail the parent and explain to them that you’re trying a more structured approach to practicing and ask them to oversee their child’s practice each day and sign off at the end of the week. I am usually very upfront with the parent and let them know that their child is not progressing very well and I’m concerned that it’s due to a lack of quality practice. Usually the parent knows whether their child has been practicing or not and their response will either be apologetic with a promise to help them do better, or defensive with an excuse as to why they haven’t practiced.
  • If it becomes apparent that lack of practice is a persistent problem, I let the student and parent know that if it doesn’t improve, I will have to let them go so that I can open their spot up to someone who is committed to practicing regularly. Usually within the year, they either decide to discontinue lessons or I let them go.

For the non-intuitive music readers, here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Have them pick out a song by ear using the notes they should know on the staff. Then, using their manuscript book, help them learn how to notate the song using the correct notes and rhythmic values. This same concept can be applied by having them compose a short piece in a particular position, if you prefer. It’s amazing how doing things “backwards” like this can help the concept of note reading click for their brains. All of a sudden it makes sense that those dots all over the page represent keys that must be played to achieve the sound that the composer wanted!
  • Use beginner level supplementary books and just keep assigning new pieces every week. For some students, it just seems like quantity is the key. The more they play, the more they start to understand the written music. This starts out pretty ugly at first – the student plays lots of wrong notes and rhythms. I might correct one or two things and have them play it again, but we ALWAYS move on to a new piece for the next week. I don’t necessarily recommend this method for all students, but it has proven very effective on the few strugglers that I have used it with.

I’m personally not a fan of the middle C approach, but it sounds like you’re supplementing with lots of other ideas, so it’s hard to say what is really going on with your students. I do know that I have had several students over the years who just took a long time to grasp the concept of note reading. But I could tell they were trying, so we kept plodding along and I kept reminding them week after week how to find their notes, etc. and eventually it did click! In the end, perseverance paid off and now they play wonderfully!

This is such a great topic, though – and one that is always pertinent. Does anyone else have any insights or ideas as to how to work with these students?

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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