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Rethinking The Way We Teach Sight Reading: 5 Pitfalls To Avoid

We music teachers already know the value of being a great sight reader. It leads to many open musical doors. In the trenches, however, we see students who have note reading issues as they struggle with the following: frustration, embarrassment, demotivation, and even desire to quit. As you probably know, practicing sight reading is not the same thing as learning repertoire. For example, a student might take weeks or months learning a Beethoven Sonata, while his sight reading abilities are at a standstill a few levels down. “That’s because sight reading is a separate skill that needs to be practiced separately,” says Samantha Coates, a noted Australian teacher and music educator. Do you recognize any of these pitfalls when it comes to teaching beginning note recognition and sight reading?

Pitfall 1: “Every Good Boy May Not Deserve Fudge”

Teaching mnemonics (letter-word associations) often delays reading skills and is confusing for several reasons. If you do teach this way, it’s likely that you, like me, also learned to read using this approach. Try Landmark Notes! Landmark Notes (or guide notes) are points of reference that are first introduced and reinforced before learning the other notes on the Grand Staff. Long term, this cuts reading response time, compared to counting up the alphabet on the staff to find a note. The most common introductory Landmarks are Middle C, Bass F, and Treble G. Then, there are additional commonly used groupings, depending on the teacher’s preferences.

Pitfall 2: Focus On Note Naming

Of course, just as you and I have a name, a necessary part of our identity, notes also have names which exist, really, to simplify communication. It’s great to use fun studio games and have them fill out note spellers, but remember that we’re not trying to produce great note spellers; we’re trying to promote fluent sight readers. While you think about that point for a second, we’ll segue into the next closely related point….

Pitfall 3: Staying Single For Too Long

No, this isn’t about your personal life. I’m actually talking about about spending too much time drilling individual notes. Whether it’s those flashcards sitting inside your piano bench, or that cute Grand Staff board you made from Pinterest (which you should absolutely use), spending too much time on single notes before introducing interval patterns may not be as productive as you think. The ability to recognize intervals and patterns quickly is an essential bridge to fluid sight reading skills, playing chords, motif patterns, and transposing. These components, along with rhythm learning, become the foundation to great sight reading.

Pitfall 4: Sticking To The Page

If reading is a struggle, try giving doses of rote pieces to lighten things up. In rote teaching, the educator simply introduces a piece through patterning and demonstration, then the student learns through an active back & forth session with the teacher. This involves interactive ear training and exercising spatial awareness on the keys. Often a welcome tool for students who already play well by ear or even for total beginners, learning by rote can help their reading skills. In this “flipped” approach, after learning a piece by rote, I encourage my students to connect the notation to what they just played through a process. My students really enjoy this method and I’ve discovered that doing things in reverse from my norm can be a good thing.

Pitfall 5: Staying Stuck in the 20th Century

Are there digital tools that you could use to help students avoid some of these earlier pitfalls? Yes! One of them is called Note Quest, a flashcard app which includes Landmark Notes and interval patterns. Unlike paper flashcards where there’s no teacher present to check them at home, Note Quest hears them play and gives real-time feedback. Parents and teachers have said it’s been a great motivational boost for their students entering this formative stage of learning piano. Since beginning sight reading is hard to measure, this app makes it one step easier to really know how they are doing when we’re not around. Among its many recent updates, Note Quest includes a new Stats page so students’ scores may be seamlessly emailed to their teachers! Visit their website to hear about exciting updates and new features.

Every time we witness musical treasures being opened, we should consider ourselves lucky seed planters. Reading music is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is a tip that is sorely needed.

“Music can change the world because it can change people.” - Bono

**Grace Lee (B.M., Piano Performance, The University of Texas at Austin, M.A., Music Education, Columbia University, Teachers College) teaches from her private piano studio in Los Gatos, California. She’s lived in many different places, including Dallas, Texas, Seattle, Washington, Southern and Northern California. She taught group piano classes at Orange County School of the Arts, and at Vanguard University. After transitioning to the Bay Area, her new Silicon Valley surroundings gave birth to a dynamic solution to help piano students--initially, for her own, but now for piano learners, young and old, all around the world. Note Quest is available for iPad and iPhone, and may be downloaded from the App Store. Find more info on Note Quest's website.