I have had students who can barely read music. I can’t blame it on the method book, the previous teacher, lack of parental support, or even lack of practice. I’ve been their sole teacher.
I do everything I possibly can do. There is simply a disconnect between what is on the printed page and what their fingers do. It starts early, in the primer book. I have learned to develop their ear as much as possible because their ear and a lot of hard work is the only way they can learn the music. Rote music becomes our best friend.
I have studied learning disabilities formally, written college papers on the subject, and I have a bookshelf full of theories, ideas, and helpful hints. And all of these theories and methods have helped. That, my patience, and a love of music is probably the reason they have stayed in piano as long as they have.
In the past I think teachers just dismissed these students as lazy and/or unmusical and got rid of them as soon as possible. Or they passed them off to another teacher who, in turn, fussed and complained loudly that their last teacher never taught them to read music.
Thank goodness those days are over! Now I get emails from the most caring and dedicated teachers who want their students to enjoy music and feel successful, and they go extra lengths to make it possible.
At this point I need to add that we can’t hold these students back until they can read music well. If we do that, they will be a senior in high school in Level 2. As they get older, we have to move them on to music that is more fulfilling and difficult. Just because they can’t read it very well doesn’t mean they aren’t technically ready to play it.
Here is a scenario from a few years past. I would like to point out that this student knew note names and received many medals on our state theory test. Away from the piano this student was a theory whiz and was in honor classes in school. At the piano with hands on the keys, everything seemed to go out the window.
Me, speaking to the student who is playing 3 notes wrong. “Now, look carefully. Notice that those two notes are on the same exact line, so see how it repeats and THEN steps down. Listen to me play it.”
Student plays G F F.
Me, “Now listen again. G G F. See, I just played the G twice. They are on the same line. Let’s play it in the air. Finger 3: G G. Let’s play it on the fall board. G G. Now try it again.”
Student plays G to F.
Me, “I have an idea, lets play a few repeated notes so you can get it in your fingers.”
We can’t ignore the fact that some students’ brains freeze up when they are frustrated or confused. We have to make a quick decision: Should we move on and come back later, or try again.
We might sing it, play it by rote, highlight it, play it in another key. What the student’s brain “thinks” is different from what the fingers want to do. It’s the same thing I experienced in ballet class!
And so it goes throughout the entire piece, no matter how easy, with each phrase learned by semi-rote. This particular high school student really wants to learn the piece, and once it is learned, will play it with beautiful phrasing, technique, and expression.
Sometimes it is hard for a teacher to distinguish between the non-practicing student and the one with unknown and mysterious learning problems, especially if the student is obviously very intelligent. And let’s face it. It takes a lot of patience to deal with such a tedious teaching style. I think most children’s piano teachers are experts in patience.
Here are some of the things I look for if I suspect a student has trouble learning to read music. The student might not exhibit all the behaviors because these kinds of problems are unique with each child. The student:
- Mixes up fingers, especially 2 and 4
- Mixes up the left and right hand; may play the left hand part with the right hand
- Mixes up D and B next to middle C as well as other notes that mirror each other
- Is not very good at clapping back rhythm patterns according to his age group
- Has trouble reading steps, skips and repeated notes
- Has trouble following more than one request at a time at the piano
- Has difficulty “saying and playing” flash cards, as in the one minute challenge
- Has trouble with directional reading; if the notes go up the student plays down
- Gets disoriented at the piano; lots of trouble finding where to start
- Short term memory problems, visual, auditory, or both. (That is why just playing it for them might not work. You need to give them a recording they can play over and over.)
- Forgets what the teacher says at the lesson
- Memorizes everything they play
- Once the music is learned, it is very hard to fix mistakes.
- May have trouble in math or reading
- May have excellent grades and excel in every other area
Playing the piano uses specific and difficult skill sets that are unique to the instrument, so problems may only show up in piano lessons.
Therefore, it is important to remember that it is not our job to tell parents their child has learning problems just because they are not doing well learning to read music. We are not qualified for that, we do not see the student in other educational settings, and we could do real harm.
What we can do is tell the parent that we are concerned about the lack of progress in a certain area, so we will be creating an individualized approach to piano lessons to work on both strengths and weaknesses in a way that is enjoyable and productive.
As a teacher, I strive to make sure everything I do or say is for the good of the student, not my reputation as a teacher, my pride in my teaching abilities, or the kind of ribbons my students receive. There is a lot more to being a good musician than being a great sight reader!