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Reading

Music reading is one of the foundational elements which almost all teachers include in their lessons. Sometimes, in fact, teachers can focus almost entirely on this aspect of lessons to the detriment of all other areas of music!

There are many other aspects of great piano lessons, but since most teachers tend to start with reading, we will too.

Method books

Method books are an extremely useful tool to help you structure the progression of topics and concepts, especially when it comes to reading. We will dive into method books and their place in helping you to teach reading skills in the Planning portion of the course. For the time being, however, we are going to be looking at each lesson element separately without reference to any method books or other resources. 

Note names

If your mind defaults to note spellers and note name flashcards when I mention music reading, you’re not alone. If you were to take the quantity of drilling games, apps, books and other resources as an indicator of the most important factor for effective music reading you would think it was note naming. 

But it’s not the most important. Not even close.

Really great sight-readers rely on familiar patterns, shapes and sequences. They do not go through the score naming each note in their head at warp speed.

So, while you do need to teach students the names of the notes, this should not be your first priority.

Axe the Mnemonics

Mnemonic devices are commonly used to teach note names to students. Here are some examples of the most common ones:

  • FACE for the spaces in the treble clef
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the lines in the treble clef
  • All Cows Eat Grass for the spaces in the bass clef
  • Granny Boogies Down Fifth Avenue for the lines of the bass clef

Once you understand that there’s no great tearing hurry to learn note names as fast as possible – because it won’t have a huge impact on the beginning stages of reading anyway – you will be less tempted to use shortcuts to teach them. 

Mnemonics are designed to be just that: a shortcut for students to use until they can recognise each note instantly.

Not only do your students not need a shortcut to name notes, but if they did, mnemonics would be a terrible choice. Students (especially children) need to go through so many steps to put these mnemonics to use:

  1. Remember the correct mnemonic for the situation.
  2. Say it to themselves and stop on the correct word.
  3. Think of the letter at the start of that word.
  4. Find the corresponding key on the piano.

This is cumbersome and very prone to errors.

Landmark Notes

Teaching with landmark notes or guide notes means your student will initially memorise the location of just a few notes. They will learn these extremely well and use them to work out any other note they need by stepping up or down on the staff. 

This is a much more effective way to teach note naming. It will be slower in the beginning, but it helps students to see the internal logic of the grand staff. 

The Skips Alphabet 

The skips alphabet is a pattern students can memorise which will help them work out any note on the staff quickly. They memorise this in the same way that they would memorise the regular alphabet, and can work their way up the staff to figure out any note – even if they only know one.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the skips alphabet, it literally means skipping through the alphabet like this:

A B C D E F G A B C D E F G 

This creates the pattern A C E G B D F. We often write it as  F A C E G B D because the word at the start makes it easier to remember, and the F at the bottom of the bass clef provides a great starting point for figuring out any note.

This may look at first glance to be similar to a mnemonic device but it is really quite different. For one thing they only need to remember one pattern, for another it connects the full staff rather than separate parts of treble and bass clef.

This pattern is a very useful teaching device, but I don’t recommend introducing it to your student at the beginning. It would be overwhelming to meet the skips alphabet right at the start of lessons. It is better to start with landmark notes first and then introduce the skips alphabet when you feel it will be useful for your student.

Intervals

Intervals should be the primary focus in how you teach the beginning stages of reading. Reading intervallically means looking for the distances between the notes rather than working out note names. This is a much more efficient approach for beginners and will get them reading independently and accurately. 

If you are going to teach music reading using intervals, you will need to use repertoire which introduces intervals in a step-by-step manner. Method books may do this job for you but it is important that you understand the logic of the progression so that you can select repertoire outside the method books too. Most intervallic approaches introduce one new interval at a time in this order:

  1. 2nds and sames
  2. 3rds
  3. 5ths (sometimes 4ths)
  4. 4ths (sometimes 5ths)
  5. 6ths

After getting to the interval of a 6th, many series will get a bit looser in structure as the student will have a pretty good grasp of reading by that stage.

Patterns

As well as individual intervals, students should be trained to pick up on common patterns in their music such as:

  • Repeats
  • Scales
  • Chords
  • Arpeggios
  • Alberti bass
  • Jump bass

The list goes on and on. Most good sight-readers have built up a subconscious library of these patterns which cuts down on the amount of reading they actually have to do in the moment because so much of it is already in their memory bank.

You should always be thinking about ways to reveal these patterns to your students when planning your lessons. You can get students to colour code repeats, scales or chords as well as simply focussing on the patterns in your guiding questions as you teach. (More on this in the Action module of this course.)

Piano Keys

If note names are the thing which most teachers focus on too much, piano key names are the number one aspect of reading which teachers neglect. It sounds so fundamental that it’s hard to believe, but many students simply do not get enough practice with the basic geography of the piano.

When students do not know the names of the keys thoroughly, problems will always manifest in their reading and other aspects of their musicianship down-the-road.

Make sure all your beginners have a full grasp of the piano key names in their beginning months of study by:

  • Playing piano key games
  • Doing quick drills (e.g. “Play all the Fs on the piano as fast as you can!”)
  • Asking your student to find their starting spot in a reading piece, rather than showing them where to put their hands

You should also do at least a few of these types of activities with students who transfer from another teacher so that you can fill in the gap if this area of their studies has been neglected.

Slow and Steady

For most students, reading takes a long time to really become fluent. It can be tempting to keep fretting as a teacher and pushing up through the levels in order to see “progress”. But when we get caught in that trap we’re forgetting to see the full picture of progress.

Piano lessons ≠ music reading lessons.

We know this, but we sometimes act as if teaching music reading is our primary job. Most students will take at least 3 years to get to a solid basic level of music reading. If you accept that and let it develop at this slower pace, you’ll be able to relax and do so many other things in their lessons like rote pieces, playing by ear, rhythm skills, improvisation and composition.

Don’t try to rush the music reading process. In most cases, the tower will be built of sand and will crumble almost beyond repair down the track.

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