Reading too early


Monica said: Aug 3, 2012
 Piano, Organ, Violin
9 posts

Dear Teachers,

Would you have any ideas/suggestions for a 10 year-old piano student who learned to read too early? He started with another teacher who it seems used a mix of Suzuki and traditional at the same time. By the time he started with me a couple years ago, he already had the “eyes stuck on the music” habit ingrained. It is almost an impossibility to get him to play anything without the music now. I started trying to develop his ear a little by giving him some familiar tunes to figure out, but it is just extremely difficult for him. (such as not being able to tell the difference when the next note is going up or down) I can’t tell if it is complete obliviousness or he’s just not trying, because it seems unbelievable that he wouldn’t be able to distinguish some very easy pitches. By what I see, it looks as if he’s not even making an effort to think and just randomly picks notes by chance waiting to see if any of them will happen to be right. I’ve tried to gradually stop using the book and teach him very slowly by imitation with lots and lots AND lots of repetition. The problem is, he’ll eventually get a phrase down, for example, but as soon as I’m not on top of him, he forgets it! If he does memorize, it’s the kind of stiff, rote memorization that falls to pieces with one little slip. Though I’ve worked a lot on listening to tone etc. he still plays w/o much feeling or expression unless he is specifically trying (and even then it is very difficult for him as he puts all his effort into that and makes mistakes with notes, rhythm…) On top of this, his mom is pushing him to finish Book 1 because he’s been in it for so long. Also, his younger sister, who started earlier with me, is already ahead of him in Book 2 and so he’s getting a lot of pressure to move quickly without learning correctly. The only way to fix this seems to be starting all over again and doing lots and lots of undoing of bad habits, but I just can’t make him go back to the beginning in this kind of situation. At least now I can see, first-hand, how hard it is to undo bad habits :). I feel so bad for him, because I think he does want to learn. Even though he’s not super excited about it, he will do the practicing etc. he just doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong, I guess, and I’m not sure what to do next. I’m so exasperated…has anyone had this happen before? The only solution I’ve thought of is to try using the Suzuki method except with another book. In other words, to find a book that comes with a cd, work tons on listening, ear training and improv and sort of “secretly” start again from there. Then at the same time, to keep reading from the Suzuki book so that he feels like he’s getting somewhere until his ear training gets caught up to his sight-reading skills. I hate to have to do this, but I can’t think of anything else. Does anyone think this would work out? Sorry to make this so long but any help/ideas would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks in advance,

G said: Aug 4, 2012
G Ordun
Suzuki Association Member
Vienna, VA
21 posts

Hi Monica!

Sounds to me as if you are describing an issue that goes way beyond “bad habits”. You’ve been trying to get this poor boy to learn aurally for “a couple of years”; and yet he cannot distinguish higher and lower pitches? Is that true for larger intervals?

Since it sounds as if he’s quite visual, you might try giving him something else to look at: his hands. Insist that he look at your hands, his hands and the piano keys. Was that key depressed as long as that one? How many keys are between these two notes? etc.

I have a small studio; but already have two visual learners (one a transfer), one kinesthetic, and an abstract thinker. All are making excellent progress; but it’s not easy.

To connect with my students, I routinely experiment with:
seeing (look at my hand, make yours look the same/different)
feeling (manipulate arm weight onto finger tip, while moving wrist down and up) AND
explaining (”press the F with finger 4 and hold it while you start to play the D with finger 2″).

What happens is that by using the learning mode most accessible to the student, they relax and are able to absorb other aspects of what is going on—how it feels to have correct hand position, what it sounds like when arm weight transfers to the fingers.

It started with students on keyboards, where I had to teach dynamics by sight/feel (if you make it look bigger or feel heavier, it will seem louder). I was actually rather amazed at their success (and both are now on acoustics, yay!)

As for Mom “pushing him to finish Book 1″, perhaps you could engage her in the search for how to best teach her son the techniques he will need to progress …


Sue Hunt said: Aug 4, 2012
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
389 posts

At this stage, It sounds as if you need to go right back to basics and play a lot of higher/lower games. If figuring out well known tunes causes stress, take a step back and see if he can recognise intervals, the sweet sound of thirds and sixths, the crispness of a perfect fifth. He can use his well developed visual sense to see what they look like on the keyboard. I am presuming that he knows that higher means right and lower means left. Can he sing a tune in terms of higher, lower, same, jump etc? Why don’t you make hand signs for up, down etc to involve his kinaesthetic sense as well?

Monica said: Aug 6, 2012
 Piano, Organ, Violin
9 posts

Thank you all for the great advice! Actually, I guess I might have made it sound a little worse than it really is. He does, of course, know the difference between higher/lower and he can, to a certain degree, distinguish between pitches. Since he is so visual, though, he obviously has the hardest time when doing it completely by ear. I still get a little confused because, for example, I might do some ear training games such as intervals etc. and he will get them mostly correct except that suddenly, out of the blue, he will get some of the easy ones completely wrong and I can’t figure out why. (I though it could be that he was just tired or not paying attention…except that it happens several times at almost every lesson! I’ve seemed to notice also that he is a little, I guess…absent-minded at times. So that may be part of the reason?) What I can’t understand is that the ear training we do apart from the rest of the lesson routine doesn’t really seem to help when put back into context with other aural playing. Because later when we go back to, say, picking out tunes by ear, it turns into the “guessing game” again. I’m thinking it’s probably that there was not enough consistent work on that, so I’m going to try focusing as much time as I can on that now. I know you mentioned trying to find ways to work through his visual sense and that definitely is a good idea, but shouldn’t I also be working on the aural and kinisthetic too since it seems that he could use strengthening in those? I was wondering which ones I should work on first/the most?

Having said all that, I’m basically trying to gather up lots of info/ideas so that I can deal with this as best I can and be very clear in what I’m going to do. I’ve definitely noticed how “visual” he is in the past, but I think the problem is that I (and most of my other students as well) are the complete opposite (VERY aural and some kinisthetic) so I am not used to the “visual” realm and it comes a little more challenging for me to teach in that style. I am going to start teaching again in a few weeks and so am very excited to start fresh and to find anything that will help. If anyone would like to throw in any other ideas or more detail on exactly what you do for this type of learning style, it would be a great help too. Also, would you know of any books or articles that cover this topic?

> It started with students on keyboards, where I had to teach dynamics by sight/feel (if you make it look bigger or feel heavier, it will seem louder). I was actually rather amazed at their success (and both are now on acoustics, yay!)>
Some of my students started with keyboards, too. It’s great to relate…I’m happy to hear it turned out well!

> Why don’t you make hand signs for up, down etc to involve his kinaesthetic sense as well?>

Thank you for reminding me about this. I have made up some games for higher/lower including physically making and drawing signs, so I’ll have to try that out some more!

Thanks again and hope you have a great beginning of the school year as well!

Deanna said: Aug 31, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
90 posts

Do you have him sing? I have an older beginner student (11 years old) who has played now for one year and she has really struggled with ear-training. We’re still working at it, of course. Some ideas:
Matching pitch with your voices. You sing a note, he copies. I usually give hand signals up/down to help them match. If that doesn’t help, I match their pitch and slide with them to the orginal pitch.
Teaching him how to slide his voice up/down using sirens/sighs is helpful too.
I then have my student sing one octave scales so they get used to stepping motion. This can be followed with arpeggios and scales in thirds (skip up, step down).

I follow Ed Kreitman’s steps to ear training laid out in Teaching from the Balance point.
THe child has to first distinguish between notes that are the same or different.
THen higher/lower.
The child has to understand how the instrument works—simple on piano: low to high, left to right.
The child can distinguish in a piece whether the next note is higher/lower/same.

If your student can do the first three but it’s not working in the pieces instead of having him look at your hand and just copy your fingers, stop and ask him to sing the next note, then ask if it’s higher/lower/same, then ask which way on the piano does he go to do higher/lower/same.
If he gets stuck on one of those steps then you know where you need to work. It might actually be the first one—maybe he can’t sing his pieces?
I play a game in group lessons sometimes where the kids start playing the piece, I stomp my foot and they swith to singing it
You could also try playing with eyes closed. Make it a challenge like he’s going to do something really tricky and amazing.
If you have two pianos in your studio, you can also do copy cats. You play one or two notes with a twinkle rhythm he copies them back. He needs to be able to do all of the above 4 steps to do this.
You can also try basic sight singing with him (to use visual learning). I have rhythms (twinkle rhythms, eighth notes, quarter note, half note and rests) drawn on sheets of paper and have the student arrange them on the floor in a line. We say the rhythms until they’re comfortable with it then I introduce pitch. So low down in “Do” up high is “Sol” This time they read the rhythms but on the pitches they chose. You can add intervals as he gets better at it.

Monica said: Sep 2, 2012
 Piano, Organ, Violin
9 posts

These are such great ideas, thanks so much! I did recently think about doing some singing. It sounds like it would really help. I’m so excited to try these out…

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