At her last piano lesson before the holiday break Fiona’s teacher suggested we look at the Royal Conservatory of Music Introductory (pre-Grade 1) album for a piece for Fiona to learn in preparation for an end-of-January recital. A “challenge piece” that she can work on learning over the three weeks’ break and polish up through January. She was very specific that it should be something Fiona learns from the written music, not by ear.

Our piano teacher is very insistent on this point — piano students need good reading skills from the get-go. By-ear learning is fine if you’re messing about recreationally at home, but for the real work of learning to play piano students need to read from the page. Those who don’t read from the beginning will never overcome their deficits. (I’ve been tempted to raise Erin as Exhibit A in my argument against this theory. Erin arrived on her doorstep at age newly-8, barely able to name a note outside the middle of the treble clef, but playing beautifully at an RCM Grade 4 level. Within 8 months her sight-reading had “caught up” and she now sight-reads far better than her teacher. But I’ve kept quiet.)

I acquiesce out of respect for our teacher. This is how she teaches, she has her beliefs, and we understand this about her and accept that it’s part of the package. She’s a rigorous well-organized teacher who knows her stuff and who is always willing to challenge her students based on their eagerness and ability rather than their age. I knew when we signed Fiona up with her that she was already reading music on the violin, so she wouldn’t suffer unduly under the reading expectations. And Fiona’s ear is getting lots of development on violin, so that is the yin to this piano yang.

The teacher wants Fiona to learn this piece every step of the way with the music, figuring it will do her good to be reliant on the written page. We play by the teacher’s rules. Fiona looks through the RCM album and chooses a piece she wants to try. I don’t play it for her, I don’t tell her note-names, I don’t point to where her fingers should go. Instead I ask her questions: what clef is that? what landmark note will help you figure out what this note is? can you clap the rhythm? how about trying just the right hand first?

It takes her a while to read her way through it the first time. It’s not easy for her to read. There are accidentals and lots of hand position shifts. It takes maybe five minutes to slog her way through the thirty second piece. Did Fiona learn something from this slog? Probably a bit.

But that’s where it ends. Because by the time she has slogged through those first five minutes it’s in her head and she has the whole thing memorized. For the next six weeks she will be playing it by ear, by memory, by heart, even if the music is in front of her. I know her teacher wanted this piece to help her learn to read with more fluency, but she probably didn’t realize that it would be internalized in a few minutes. When you were five years old you probably decoded the letters “STOP” on an octagonal sign once or twice, but seeing stop signs every day of your life after that didn’t help you become a better reader.

That’s the situation Fiona is in with this little piano piece. She understands it after one halting read-through and after that the decoding is beside the point. It’s no wonder kids like this have to reach a certain level of complexity in their piano playing before reading is really necessary to such an extent that it begins to get the workout it needs to develop more fully.

Here it is the day after that first slog. There’s lots of musical and technical work still to be done polishing it up. It’s “barely learned” at this point, but what’s instructive is that the reading work is over and done with. She played this without the written music. Of course.

Reading music

4 thoughts on “Reading music

  • December 21, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Gaaah! That teacher needs to get the pole out of her butt. =O) Thank goodness Fiona has a good ear and can overcome the technical impositions placed on her without losing her love of the music. A lot kids wouldn’t survive that kind of expectation. She did a great job of trudging through it!


  • December 21, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    To be fair, Bridget, the slog wasn’t a big hardship for Fiona. She kind of enjoys the intellectual challenge. I wouldn’t have forced her to do it if she wasn’t happy doing the work.

  • December 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I’m certain Fiona was fine with it; my little girl enjoyed the challenge as well. My boy, not so much, and quit soon thereafter. It was too bad too, because he could play by ear with both hands after one listening and he seemed to really revel in it. It doesn’t seem there are too many piano teachers out there who can think outside of the box. Your story struck a nerve for me, I guess. =O) Bridget

  • January 4, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I was so glad to read this, Miranda. Maddie started piano lessons this fall. I have only ever been able to play by ear (recreationally at best) and Maddie enjoys doing the same. But she reads her music, and she memorizes her songs and plays them from memory for the rest of the week. I’m glad to see that this approach isn’t uncommon.

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