How to help cellist daughter to learn to read well?


Erin & Christopher Palmer said: Nov 13, 2016
25 posts

My daughter is in the end of cello book 3. She has a really good ear, and up until Humoresque or so, learned everything by ear. So we have a problem now that if she gets a piece of music to read that she has not heard, she cannot read it. (She did work her way through the I can read books). Her teacher assigns her etudes from this book: and the thing is she is almost guaranteed will get half of the notes wrong. (So I think she relies on finger numbers when reading Suzuki pieces). i think the thing she struggles with most is extensions, reading o=in a hey other than G/C major and occidentals.

My husband practices with her, he doesn’t play, so has no idea if what she plays is wrong. I do know notes, but I have very little knowledge of cello (I mostly can just hear if she plays Suzuki pieces incorrectly, no idea how to fix them though). So what’s a good approach to get her to be able to own that and figure out how to actually read correctly? (Her teacher wants to be able to know things like what note is 2nd finger on A string, or what note (including sharp and flat) are the notes written.


Emily Balderrama said: Nov 13, 2016
Emily Balderrama
Suzuki Association Member
San Diego, CA
5 posts

Hi Erin,
This is actually a common problem I have faced with my own students who have really good ears. It is much easier to play things by ear then read, so they will go very far in suzuki without developing strong reading skills.

One book that I love to use (depending by age will alter some) is Melanie Smith’s Beginner Cello Theory. Its a great book because it covers everything from rhythm to note reading basics (space versus line notes on the staff). There is also lots of repetition which I find works well with my younger students. My one con to the book is it teaches “2 or 3″ for the 2nd note on the string. What I ended up doing is white outing the second number, so its only the one for the corresponding string (i.e. for F natural I white out 3 so its only 2).

I also pick a choose some pages from “Workbook for Strings, Bk. 1″ I like this book as a follow up after completing Book 2 of Melanie Smith because it introduces the concept of accidentals and how it changes which fingering to use.

Flashcards are also a great tool, starting with bass clef notes, then their corresponding first position fingers.

It definitely takes time to develop strong sight-reading skills, but it is important to remember that your daughter won’t immediately be able to sight-read at Book 3 level, but should start from the beginning with basic note recognition!

Emily Balderrama
EMB Music Studio

Nancy Wood said: Jan 18, 2017
Nancy Wood
Suzuki Association Member
Richmond, BC
2 posts

I have found a few music-reading apps that are quite fun to use and teach both note and rhythm reading. My Note Games is great because students can play the notes shown on the staff on their instrument, not just identify the note names. My daughter also likes two apps we bought bundled together: Flashnote Derby and Rhythm Swing. Both of these allow you to choose which notes/rhythms you work on and are lots of fun to play. I think that this is a motivating way for students (especially ones who find reading difficult or not fun) to get some reading practice. Reading music is just like reading in any other language—it requires a great deal of practice in order to become fluent and is often frustrating for students while they are getting to the fluent stage.

Barb said: May 18, 2017
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
685 posts

Two things are needed: Knowing the notes under the fingers, and knowing the notes on the staff. I learned very poorly, starting with relying on finger numbers above the notes, and then only being able to relate the note on the staff to my fingers, but not always certain of the actual name of the note. This hurt me when it came to reading in different keys.

I always have my students say (or better, sing) the names of the notes as they play their early scales. Some students find looking at a chart of the fingerboard with note names helpful.

I have heard that the finger numbers (so thick in the early Suzuki cello books) are actually there for the parents. Maybe make a copy for her where you white-out the numbers for pieces she is reading except perhaps the first note of the shifts, but let your husband keep the numbered copy? But if she is listening to the CDs you won’t really know if she is reading the Suzuki material or playing by ear—as the material is designed to be used.

I like using supplementary material which is not recognizable by ear for reading (such as the I Can Read books). No, you won’t necessarily know if she is playing every note right if you are not following along, and if it’s only for READING practice, that is okay. If her teacher is having her read in lessons, she may be corrected there. The more she does it she will improve. What you don’t want to do is practice repertoire incorrectly. Sufficient listening “downloads” the correct version to the brain so that if it is played wrong it is immediately recognized as wrong and corrected. Eventually, reading will be used for repertoire, but it is a process to get there! I like the earlier comment that reading should begin at a lower level than the Suzuki repertoire she is playing.

Maybe there is also some popular or movie music she is interested in which often comes with no fingerings. Yes, much may be played by ear, but she may begin to blend reading and ear use with this kind of material? Something you could ask her teacher about.

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