I’ve been asked by one of my 8 years old pupils’ mother yesterday; ‘I wonder when my son starts learning to read music. He seems to be frustrated because he can’t read yet. He’s so keen and wants to do more.’ He only started piano lesson 2 months ago and he’s learned a few pieces and etudes, and during the holiday he enjoyed playing a Christmas song with a harmony in the left hand. Off to a good start, without needing to read notes to learn pieces, so he can focus on getting his ear-eye-hand coordination sorted and ready to tackle an intricate task of decoding notation later on.

Coordination doesn’t just mean moving fingers and putting the hands together. It also includes the ability to ‘hear’ what you’re playing or what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play, to ‘understand’ high and low in sound in relation to up and down of the keyboard, to be able to ‘sing or hum’ the melody line while you’re playing to maintain steady pulse, to learn to sing or hum rhythmic patterns while you’re playing so that you’re aware of rhythmic values in music, to ‘transfer’ the information that your eye took in to your finger work, etc. When pupils have gained such coordination first, they usually find their way not to get frustrated when they start learning to read notation. So, to my view, a couple pages to cover how to read notation as you find in most conventional piano tutor books seems not sufficient enough. A lot more careful and considerate preparations leading to reading notation seems necessary and more sensible. With anything else, ‘internalising’ takes time and effort.

To compare how we learn to speak and read your language, it may sound much clearer. Did you start to read a book before you speak your language? Did you start learning to read before you can write a few words? When you read, do you read letter by letter to form a word? And finally, can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

In reading music, the same can be said, I believe. If your mind is trained to recognise patterns in relation to how they sound, guessing work can kick in and you can focus on executing the sound on your instrument. For this reason, I usually introduce to my pupils an interval reading technique, rhythmic reading/writing exercises and a few landmark notes writing exercises in the early stage of learning, while they learn to acquire coordination skill to be able to ‘hear’, ‘sing’ and ‘play’, so when it comes to reading music to learn pieces, they know what to do. They take in rhythmic values properly, they can maintain steady pulse while they play, they can play in an ensemble setting, etc, and they can eventually become independent learners.

Back to this 8 years old pupil of mine, he’s already done quite a bit of preparations to start reading notation very soon. He just doesn’t realise that they’re part the course and that he’s already acquired some reading skill to read music! He’ll soon no doubt find out he can actually read music 😉

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