Teaching piano students to read well

Andrea Simms said: Feb 3, 2016
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
6 posts

I’m interested in hearing from other piano teachers about how they overcome some seemingly typical reading problems in Suzuki students. Piano students tend to hunt for the notes by trial and error even when they are reading a piece they have never heard. They also repeat the beginning over and over until they can add another measure, then start over again. They memorize as they go but don’t develop the skill of reading ahead and playing in real time, so important for pianists. I have taken to asking them to read much slower and avoid “stuttering” and keep their eyes on the music. I find Suzuki piano students don’t easily develop a keyboard picture that they can “see” while they are looking at the music, perhaps because they have been looking at the piano all the time and have not needed to develop it. Some well respected teachers in my area admit that their students don’t read well, but I don’t accept that my students’ reading must always be behind their playing skills. Any thoughts?

James said: Feb 3, 2016
James Guerin
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
27 posts

My Suzuki master teachers mostly thought reading began in Book Two. But this is a throwback to the Japanese era, when children began at age 3 or 4.

If a child is age 7 or older, they should be exposed to reading as soon as they get the learning by ear approach. It is not a good idea to wait until they are 9 years old! Music Tree is wonderful. So is Faber.

One good technique to overcome the stuttering is exposure to reading a piece they already know by ear. The rule is they have to start and stop wherever I mark the music. If you are not giving them other music besides Suzuki (I definitely do), then write a Book One melody out for them without the left hand, or with a variation they have to watch for. They can read the whole thing without stuttering because they already know it, but they have to keep their eyes on the music for the variation.

At lessons, they read very easy things, even marked with fingerings, so they become familiar with fluent playing.

Do NOT depend on Suzuki Book Two. Start them earlier.

Inger Ross-Kristensen said: Feb 4, 2016
Inger Ross-Kristensen
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Needham, MA
8 posts

I start very young students’ reading program when they enter book 2. But with an older student, I also start reading while going thru book 1.

I find the Music Tree excellent with the interval approach. You don’t have to memorize the names of the notes, you just know your landmarks and then go interval by interval.

So at book 2, you have 3 things going: A Suzuki piece, a Music Tree assignment and a short beginner reading piece.

This method has been very successful for me, and my students develop such reading skills that as teenagers they read the most advanced repertory: Schubert’s Impromptus, Beethoven and Mozart Sonatas, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Debussy, I could go on. They never complain about the difficulties, they just play and they all love it.

Inger

Tina MW Lujan said: Feb 4, 2016
Tina MW Lujan
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Port Orchard, WA
2 posts

I start my children with reading immediately at 3. We play with our magnetic circles from the puppy pack from day one making patterns on the keys and move them to a paper with a simple, empty staff. Even simply tracing a hand and pointing to or coloring finger numbers helps with the dimensional change of paper.
With my older/reading students we tend to all go through the phase of measure by measure and heading back to the beginning but, with patience and training to start and stop at my marks (beginning with variations in group lessons) they overcome that habit fairly early.
Reading must become a necessary tool to reach a desired goal—something fun, useful and easy. Otherwise why should they learn? Everyone’s favorite subject is recess. It’s our job as teachers to… Make these vegetables worth eating when the chocolate of playing by ear is so easy to grab.

Lori Bolt said: Feb 4, 2016
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

I like to introduce and work on note values, rhythm reading, and music symbols during Book 1 group classes. Rhythm is important and difficult, so my hope is students “get it” before needing to also decipher notes on the staff when formal reading starts. I like a program called Rhythm Cup Explorations to train students’ eyes to follow a line of rhythm while engaged in cup tapping. They love it in group!

I use Methode Rose Vol. 1 & 2, or Complete (for older child, has smaller print). I recommend Cathy Hargrave’s book Reading Music By Ear for practical ways to teach Suzuki piano students to read music. I begin formal reading (with assignments) late Book 1, and it seems to work well.

Lori Bolt

Andrea Simms said: Feb 4, 2016
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
6 posts

Thanks, Lori! I will try your ideas.

Heather Reichgott said: Feb 4, 2016
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
95 posts

I find the Sight Reading & Rhythm Every Day series by Marlais and Olson to be very helpful with Suzuki students. There are a lot of exercises, they are very short, and the rhythm exercises are separate from the note reading exercises. Note reading is taught by landmark notes and intervals. The progression of difficulty is quite slow and populated with a great many constantly changing exercises. I give the students books at a level that is VERY easy for them to read, to help them build confidence in developing a new skill, the brevity of the exercises is good for everyone’s sanity, and the fact that the exercises change daily seems to break the habit of trying to memorize all the time.

I’ve tried a few reading series over the years and this is giving the best results of anything I’ve tried so far.

I found the series while following up on a recommendation from a Suzuki teacher trainer to separate rhythm exercises from note-reading exercises. The books she suggested were hard to find but the Marlais-Olson series does the same thing.

I do not expect students to read their Suzuki working pieces until reading is very well established with much easier material.

Patricia Heineman-Vernon said: Feb 5, 2016
Patricia Heineman-Vernon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Chicago, IL
2 posts

I use the Marlais book as well. As far as students not having a developed sense of rhythm, I highly recommend Kindermusik type classes (Or a good early childhood class) before they start piano. For years, I had my own Kindermusik program and never took students unless they had done years of Kindermusik. They never had any problems with rhythm at all. Now Im in a different situation and the students I get do not have that same background and I see a major difference. I also want to know how everyone fits reading in along with scales and Suzuki in 30 minutes. It seems the minute you start reading in the lesson the parents think their job is over and the kids are then stuck reading Book Two pieces and their progress is so, so slow. I am teaching way more ‘notes’ at the lesson than I have ever done in the past. I live in a large metropolitan area where there are so many activities to do and the kids are so overbooked.

Pat Heineman-Vernon

Lori Bolt said: Feb 6, 2016
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

Pat ~ I ask that students who are reading and playing scales move up to 45 minute lessons. I also continue to use group time to teach theory concepts that Book 2 students need (how to build scales, more complex rhythms…) in order to save lesson time for other things.

As for the parent thinking their job is done, this is where parent education comes in. I often talk to the parent privately to explain why they are still needed for a while longer, especially in the area of learning new pieces. Sometimes comparing music reading with a child learning to read in school can be helpful, reminding parents of the ways they assisted their child through the different stages of becoming an independent & successful reader in school.

Lori Bolt

Patricia Heineman-Vernon said: Feb 6, 2016
Patricia Heineman-Vernon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Chicago, IL
2 posts

Thanks Lori…and so what happens when they don’t want to move up to 45 minutes. Good idea about talking to parents privately (I need to do more of that).

Thanks for the tips. Hope people continue to share on this topic. Do many teachers use IPAD reading games? I don’t since I dont have an IPAD but hear that for many kids it is a real motivator.

And also most of my families have 2 -3 children so the cost goes up if they all are needing 45 minute lessons.

Pat Heineman-Vernon

Anne Brennand said: Feb 6, 2016
Anne Brennand
Suzuki Association Member
Cello
Boulder, CO
37 posts

Hi. I have found teaching the horizontal rhythm orientation to note reading more helpful at first than the vertical pitch recognition. I asked a percussionist’s help in that, and he recommended a snare drum etude book. These are readily available, and I copy pages to use with students during their lesson time. I challenge parents to follow along, tapping on knees or the table. The students love using a small drum I purchased the last time I was in New Mexico (www.taosdrums.com/).

Anne Brennand, cellist and cello teacher

Lori Bolt said: Feb 7, 2016
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

Pat ~ re: 45 minute lessons, I’m learning to explain that we will increase the lessons and the fee in Book 2 when the student begins Book 1. Other than that, I explain it when we’re approaching the last several pieces of Bk. 1, and need to start adding reading to the lesson time. I’m matter of fact, and explain the need for more lesson time as pieces increase in length and difficulty.

I do have a family of three who have declined to increase to 45 minutes, so we’re working it out by having the two who are in Bk. 2 spend time in lessons (about 7-10 minutes) doing reading together, then each having about 20 minutes left individually. It works so far because they’re moving at the same pace, but still hard to fit review and current pieces in that time. I plan to approach the parent again. Even an extra 15 shared between two is a little better than what I’m doing now, so maybe that’s a way to start with your siblings and not add too much cost.

Lori Bolt

Andrea Simms said: Feb 7, 2016
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
6 posts

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this discussion!

I tell parents up front that the lessons will expand gradually to 1 hour when the kids are 6 or 7 years old. I currently have two who said they could not afford to go from 45 min. to 1 hour, so I give them hour lessons for the price of 45 min. It is just too stressful to try to do a good job when there is not enough time to do it! I would rather reduce my stress than increase my income. But I realize, that’s not for everyone!

Regarding using short reading exercises, I agree that these can be helpful for learning basic skills. I now am exploring how to train students to learn full length pieces that they have never heard. Our Suzuki trainer suggests giving them new easy reading material every week, and this is necessary but not sufficient to address this issue. My current plan for book 3 students is to assign music outside the Suzuki repertoire at the level of book 2 for them to learn to performance level without a recording. I have only been a Suzuki teacher for 8 years and am definitely still learning now that I am teaching a 2nd generation of kids. My 35 years of traditional teaching did not prepare me for teaching these skills to children who play by ear well.

Lori Bolt said: Feb 7, 2016
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

Anne ~ I agree about the horizontal rhythm teaching. Rhythm Cups Explorations does the same thing. I love the drum idea!

Lori Bolt

G said: Feb 8, 2016
G Ordun
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Vienna, VA
21 posts

Andrea and Lori,

My policies include recommended lesson lengths. If a family is unwilling/unable to increase lesson time, I don’t argue. They will notice on their own that progress has slowed. Since I cannot know if it truly is a financial stretch, I’m not willing to pressure/embarrass anyone.

But neither am I willing to be taken for a fool. Giving away your time is a slippery slope (as my reschedule policy is teaching me ;-) If a student is really motivated and practicing properly, we can work a Book 2 lesson into 30 minutes.

My lessons all start with less popular work (technique, scales, reading) and build toward the more popular (new and auxiliary pieces). If we have to spend a great deal of time, for example, working through the reading piece so they don’t “stutter” (great term!), we may not get to new assignments. Serves as gentle pressure on the students to do technique and reading work at home, as well as demonstrating the need for additional lesson time to the parents.

Please note, I am in no particular hurry to get my students through the books. It takes as long as it does and if the only lesson I can teach a particular student is that their rate of progress will be in direct proportion to their investment of time and effort … well then, I’m good.

FWIW,
geOrdun

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