Helping piano students with learning problems

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!



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16 thoughts to “Students Who Can’t Read Music

  • Carol

    Good read, but still not sure how to fix the problem. My student can name the notes on the staff. She can find the note on the piano. But having to read and play is where the disconnect is. She says that all she sees is the E on the staff and everything else gets jumbled. She’s started writing the names of the notes on the staff to help her but that’s not gonna help her in the long run. She’d have A LOT of writing to do if she kept that up. Help!

  • Kristi

    This post explains a 10 year old student I have been teaching for 3 years. I have really struggled to help her progress, so I am eagerly looking forward to any helps you post! Thank you!

  • Wai Sum Chong

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for a really supportive post on a perennial problem. I too have had students who had trouble ‘reading’ music. Just as you said, getting a proper diagnosis is SO HARD and one of my main concerns is the lack of information from parents. There was one student who was a really fast and intelligent learner, but who seem to slow down when sight-reading or responding to visual elements. I suspected a visual problem as I noticed him squinting and rubbing his eyes a lot. Parents were a bit dismissive and kept saying that it was just dry eyes made worse by central heating. I kept hinting that he needed to get his eyes checked. Lo and behold, once he got glasses, the ‘reading’ problem went away!

    I’ve had a couple of students who loved music , got on really well with theory work but did not enjoy the mechanics of playing the instrument. They’d play my musical games all day long and respond brilliantly, but actually had very little desire to make music on the instrument. In their case, the actual disciplines associated with playing ie regular and effective practice, usage of particular fingers, having to learn how to maintain a pulse, having to process multiply strands of information at the same time, was just too much and progress slowed right down. I also think there are loads of students out there who are pressured to learn an instrument for which they do not have an affinity. These are the ones who need to have their love of music sustained and encouraged without having the pressure of having to stick to one particular instrument.

    • Susan Paradis

      Wai Sum, thank you for some very wise comments!

  • Helen

    Great article!

  • Phyllis Pan

    Yes….so true. I find it helps to get them to pause and look….to give them ample time to process what they see. Thank you for sharing! : )

  • Kim

    Susan, it seems most all piano teachers have these students at one time or another. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and suggestions. I will be using some of them with 2 of my students!

  • Toni Tetreau

    I was that student. I did not have any learning disabilities. If I heard it, I could play it, and notes simply slowed me down. I love all your suggestions. Patience is the incredible key word. What I also find with my students is that I always make them sight-read a passage 2-3 times with me before hearing it. Then we also choose some fun “rote” songs to play together to ease the burden. That way they get to do ear playing which is way more fun (in my opinion!) and reading notes at the same time. I believe a balance is essential.

  • Jane

    Hi, Susan ~
    Thank you so much for this post! One other thing that I’ve learned in the last year, is to find out from the parent ahead of starting lessons (in private email or by phone) is to find out if the student has learning disabilities. I’ve had a student for a couple years who made very slow progress for her age. Her mom shared with me one day that she has a processing challenge, which made me wish I had started in different books with her. I need to do a better job of interviewing and getting students started on the right foot. Keep up the good work of inspiring us with your posts and wonderful music resources!

  • Dudleys Mom

    Thanks for this. It’s also worth testing if a student such as you describe has perfect pitch. That skill seems to make it difficult to read music, because it’s so easy for them to just hear the notes. One student in particular uses just egregious fingering–but at a recent recital I got him to play a Beethoven sonatina with perfect fingering, and I asked him, what was different about this piece? He said he waited to memorize it until he mastered the fingering. A real a-ha moment for me.

  • Anita

    Wow! This is so comforting to see that I’m not alone in this. I have found good results in teaching a couple of kids with this visual processing problem by using lead sheets and simple music arranging. Once they got far enough along in the method books I found they could read chord inversion hand shapes much easier than individual notes. For example, I call the V7 hand shape’ the OK hand shape’ and the IV chord ‘The Open OK hand shape’. We drill on assuming the shape like a ballet dancer.
    Faber has some chordtime pop and rock books and adult Bastien Music The World Over has a great book with mostly I IV V7 in the left hand. I keep a file folder with songs that use the 145 chords so that I can keep these students progressing in complexity. If the chords are broken in the music, it helps to circle them with color coded pencils so that their brains can see the relationship instead of get confused by the individual notes.
    Another thing that has helped us to tape a plastic sheet protector on top of the music and using an erasable marker, let the student trace over the notesto make a visual path. Then have them trace over the path with their finger while the music is vertical on the piano. Then remove the plastic sheet and lay it horizontally and trace it again. If it’s a simple path I then have them close their eyes and do muscle memory with the motion. Sometimes though, nothing seems to work.

  • Linda

    Hi Susan

    Thanks so much for this post. I have and had so many students like this and still do not have a solution. I would love to solve this problem and just this last week decided that maybe it had to do with intelligence. In other words, the most intelligent and/or higher IQ, the more the student could easily read music. I found a book called “Notes Made Fun” by Kevin and Julia Olsen, which seems to be helping with my one new 8 year old student. He is beginning to remember the notes because every single note has an animal name. He is in the Thompson Method Book that his mother bought called “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”.

    With a couple of other students I started using “The Music Tree” by Frances Clark simultaneously with whatever method book they are in. It has helped with 3 students with reading by direction, forcing them to notice lines and spaces etc.

  • Valerie

    So true! I was just thinking about this yesterday- I have a lovely student that I’ve taught since he was 4.5. He’s a delight to teach- loves theory, motivated to learn, literally jumped up and down for joy when I told him he could learn the Petzold G Major minuet last year. But he’s always struggled deeply with reading, no matter what I try. Yesterday he mentioned that he recently got glasses and said he’d bring them to lessons next week, because the notes are fuzzy and blurry without them. Lightbulb moment! No wonder he’s had such a difficult time recognizing patterns and notes. I feel a bit bad for not thinking of that earlier, but hopefully now that he has them, it will help. Thanks for encouraging me with your thoughtful and caring approach, Susan!

  • Kelli

    Thank you for addressing this! I have experienced what you described several times – Beyond recordings and rote learning do you recommend any books on your shelf for a deeper look into this?

  • Maryjane Peluso

    Dear Susan, This is a most informative and affirming post! I have three students who exemplify this situation in varying degrees: it is a relief to see my own observations described here.
    You are exactly right, I think, in the teaching strategies you suggest. I have experimented and come up with similar modifications and adjustments for these students.
    More importantly in the final paragraphs you pose the moral obligations of the teacher : don’t diagnose a learning disability, maintain utmost patience and flexibility!,etc. I have not ever seen this subject so well-addressed, truly. Thank you so much for this excellent, extraordinary post!

    • Nancy

      Thank you for this post! And “ditto” to Maryjane’s post!


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