How should students think about reading notation?
Often the student is blamed for not being a natural reader, when it was really the method or teaching approach that was ﬂawed.
The student develops the idea that reading music is not fun and that he is bad at it.
It is so important to lay the foundation correctly when developing a student’s relationship to the notated score!
One wrong assumption many methods or teachers seem to have traditionally subscribed to is: to read music, the most important thing is for students to know all the notes names.
The truth is that much more than note names is involved in reading.
Note names alone are not enough!
Reading music is a complex skill that requires not only knowledge of note names, but an incredible amount of spatial awareness on the page and in the hands, combined with rhythm in real time.
Sight reading is a multitasking ability: you have to do with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, phrasing, expressive markings, articulation, accents, speed, style, character, pedaling....
So break down the task!
What are the ingredients that lead to conﬁdent and ﬂuent music reading?
Ingredient #1. Patterns and Theory.
Students should see patterns in the music and relate them to how this feels physically on the piano.
Music is not a random collection of notes.
Instead, music is made up of logical patterns.
This is the right way of thinking about music!
Basic theory patterns such as triads, scales, and accompaniment patterns form the basis for ﬂuent reading.
Learning pentascales and triads is not only the basis for understanding of theory and key areas, but also forms the basis of standard ﬁngering practices. This will later help students in reading, as they will already have these patterns with the appropriate ﬁngerings in their hands. They can recognize the patterns, and immediately their hands will know how to technically execute the pattern. Theory and technique are integrated through the study of scales, chord inversions, and standard accompaniment patterns such as Alberti bass, waltz bass, stride, and broken chord accompaniments. It is amazing how students who have already been trained to look for patterns can immediately recognize the chords, scales, and accompaniment patterns in their pieces and sight reading cards and be able to play them ﬂuently.
Ingredient #2. Contours and Intervals.
Shapes of melodies and the intervals within the melodies.
Shapes of chords and the intervals that make up the chord.
What is the intervallic reading approach?
It means that students are trained to read the intervals and see the relationships between the notes, rather than reading by note name one note at a time.
The intervallic approach produces the highest percentage of students who become conﬁdent and competent music readers.
Students who read using an intervallic approach see patterns in the melodies much more easily and they are also able to transpose much easily. The intervallic approach is the best way to teach students to read music notation, because good sightreaders of all levels do not read by letter name. Instead, they read by shapes of chords and melody contours that are based on intervals.
Ingredient #3. Rhythm.
You have to keep going!
The sight reading ﬂow has always to go very well in a musical and meaningful way.
Understanding rhythm in terms of the larger beat and in terms of rhythmic notation is foundational for good sight reading.
Rhythm is an important component for good sight reading and, again, this has to do with patterns, this time rhythm patterns. Internalizing rhythmic patterns really enhances the ability of a student to decode music. I believe in the syllabic system of counting. When counting syllabically (with Ta’s), students tend to count with a musical rhythmic inﬂection that aids the student in developing a basic sense of pulse and organization of the rhythm.
Ingredient #4. Note Names.
It is important for students to become ﬂuent in recognizing note names and playing them in the correct octave on the piano.
But this is only one component to reading music.
It is unfortunate that this ingredient has often been elevated to the only thing that is involved in music reading. Note names are important. They are just not the only key to reading music.
Working on these four areas systematically and repetitively over a period of at least three years will yield conﬁdent readers.
Teaching students to read music notation takes an enormous amount of thought, understanding, reinforcement, and planning.
My goal is for all students to become conﬁdent readers, trusting the process and continuing to work toward the goal of each student reading conﬁdently.