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#21180 - 08/11/03 09:15 AM Teaching Reading
Jason Offline
Star Member

Registered: 05/14/00
Posts: 2019
Loc: Iowa City, IA
As requested in another thread, I'd like to offer my thoughts on teaching reading:

The process of reading music at the piano is a very complicated one. It's also a process that can come in different forms. It's much the same as reading text - we can skim an article for important information, slowly and carefully read an article for accuracy, or just casually read through the latest romance or spy novel.

Reading music, however, is much different than reading text becaue of the physical elements involved. Because of this, I like to divide the skills students need to be able to read music into two categories - hands and eyes.

HANDS

First of all, we have to have enough physical dexterity and coordination to be able to play what we read. The notes and patterns in, say, Chopin Op. 10#1 are rather simple to see, but actually producing the sound is another matter entirely!

So the first prerequisite for reading music is technique. Unfortunately, we often think of technique as being separate and distinct from reading, but this is untrue - they are very closely linked!

Where technique is concerned, there are 3 basic skills essential to being able to read: finger dexterity, arm mobility, and coordination. Without these, reading is a frustrating if not futile task! This is one of the reasons the Fabers have done so well with the Technique and Artistry books - these technique activities are VERY important to reading.

EYES

The second aspect of reading I like to think of as eyes. We have to be able to recognize what's on the page and process it very quickly.

We need to be able to recognize rhythm and pitch, and these two things can be taught and drilled separately. (More on this in my next post.)

The most important ability in reading rhythm is what I like to call reading rhythm "conveyor belt" style. When one is reading rhythm fluently, he or she has the feeling that the music is already passing beneath them at a constant rate. All one has to do is drop the correct rhythms in the correct place on the conveyor belt. If you "miss a beat", it's no big deal, you simply drop the next one into place. Problems come when students want to change the speed of the conveyor belt, but as anyone who's worked on an assembly line will tell you, that's just not an option!

In the reading of pitch, there are two main types - atomic and patterned.

"Atomic" reading (my term) refers to a person's ability to pick any note by itself off the staff and play it immediately. Flash cards are an atomic reading drill.

Also important is the recognition of patterns. This comes in a couple of different forms. We can recognize internal patterns - similar passages within a piece of music, or external patterns - things we recognize because we've seen them before in other pieces or in scales or arpeggios. Both are important and should be developed.

That's all for now, I'll keep adding to this post over the next few days and offer some ideas on how each of these aspects of reading can be taught.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)


www.pianoped.com

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#21181 - 08/11/03 12:51 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Jalapeņa Offline
Star Member

Registered: 02/20/03
Posts: 1143
Loc: New Mexico
Jason, thanks for sharing this information. \:\) I know you haven't yet posted everything you intend to post on the subject, but I already have a question regarding eyes. \:D We all know that keeping one's eyes on the music--not down at the hands--is essential for the development of good sightreading skills. I think "tracking" ability is very important. That is, the student's eyes must be able to follow the music on the page while at the same time his/her hands play the notes & his/her feet work the pedals. To be a good sightreader, the student must actually read ahead of what he/she is playing. Do you have special teaching strategies to help students who have poor tracking skills?

[ 08-11-2003: Message edited by: Jalapeņa ]

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#21182 - 08/11/03 01:48 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Jason Offline
Star Member

Registered: 05/14/00
Posts: 2019
Loc: Iowa City, IA
You're right about tracking being very important.

As for where the eyes go, a great deal depends on the level of the music being played.

At the early stages, the eyes should be on the music at all times. With more advanced repertoire, there are times when you just have to look.

I think the number one reason students tend to look down is because they rely on sight and not on feel to find the keys. This is one of the reasons I find playing exercises very important - as a student repeats certain patterns over and over again, the need to look down begins to go away. It's all about establishing a tactile familiarity with the keys.

For most tracking purposes, there are a few things I do that I think help:

  • Cover the student's hands with a book to hide them from sight
  • Have the student say note names or direction aloud
  • Build a student's confidence by going through simple sight reading materials (Step Skip and Repeat and the Let's Sightplay series from FJH are great for this


I also think it's important for the same reason to have students memorize pieces - even when they might not be performing them. This helps build tactile memory - an absolutely VITAL skill in sight reading. You have to be able to remember how things FEEL under the hands. When the score is out of sight, it's much easier to concentrate on feel.

I know this may seem counter-intuitive, that playing from memory helps reading, but I'm convinced it does serve an important part of a complete musical education and helps students build the skills they need to be good readers.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)


www.pianoped.com

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#21183 - 08/11/03 02:22 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Jalapeņa Offline
Star Member

Registered: 02/20/03
Posts: 1143
Loc: New Mexico
 Quote:
Originally posted by Jason:
At the early stages, the eyes should be on the music at all times. With more advanced repertoire, there are times when you just have to look.


I agree. I just assumed that this thread would deal specifically with teaching beginner-level students how to read music. I also assume that a teacher would not assign advanced repertoire to a student who could not sightread fluently.

 Quote:
I think the number one reason students tend to look down is because they rely on sight and not on feel to find the keys. This is one of the reasons I find playing exercises very important - as a student repeats certain patterns over and over again, the need to look down begins to go away. It's all about establishing a tactile familiarity with the keys.


I agree. ... but how to get students to want to play exercises--that is the problem.

 Quote:
For most tracking purposes, there are a few things I do that I think help:

  • Cover the student's hands with a book to hide them from sight
  • Have the student say note names or direction aloud
  • Build a student's confidence by going through simple sight reading materials (Step Skip and Repeat and the Let's Sightplay series from FJH are great for this


I also think it's important for the same reason to have students memorize pieces - even when they might not be performing them. This helps build tactile memory - an absolutely VITAL skill in sight reading. You have to be able to remember how things FEEL under the hands. When the score is out of sight, it's much easier to concentrate on feel.

I know this may seem counter-intuitive, that playing from memory helps reading, but I'm convinced it does serve an important part of a complete musical education and helps students build the skills they need to be good readers.


Interesting. As a teacher, I've done all of the above things, but never considered memory as an aid to reading... probably because I'm a fluent sightreader even though my piano teacher rarely made me memorize anything. My sightreading improved dramatically when I started doing accompaniment work. The choir directors would stick unfamiliar music in front of me & expect me to play it. It's amazing how well one can learn to read music when one has no other choice! \:D

Question: Have any of you teachers ever covered a student's hands with a folder, only to have the parents accuse you of being mean? :rolleyes: I have, & it's not funny. I'd like to know how to get students to keep their eyes on the music when they won't allow me to help them. Geez! :rolleyes:

I remember when I was learning how to type. I kept looking down at the keys of the typewriter... \:o until one day my teacher saw what I was doing. She proceeded to put masking tape, covered with White Out, on each & every key so I would quit looking down. Worked like a charm. Now you all know why I'm a fast, accurate typist. \:D

You wouldn't think that holding a folder over a piano student's hands would be offensive, but to some people it is. :rolleyes:

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#21184 - 08/11/03 04:36 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Carole Offline
Star Member

Registered: 06/08/00
Posts: 2229
Loc: southern California
Jala, that is so weird. Why would they think you were being mean? It is a wonderful aid to keep those eyeballs on the music. (Remember in the OLD Schaum books that had this contraption that hooked on to your shoulders and draped someway across the hands? Never saw one in reality!) I use this technique frequently in the beginning. BTW, thanks for all this info, Jason. Very interesting reading.

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#21185 - 08/11/03 05:05 PM Re: Teaching Reading
NancyK Offline
Mainstay Member

Registered: 03/27/03
Posts: 644
Loc: North Dakota
I often hold a folder or book over a student's hands and no one has ever complained. Students accept it as a game and /or a test. They are amazed to find out how easily they can read and play without looking down. It IS very striking. They are so much more accurate!

I recently came across the Step, Skip, Repeat books and am finding them VERY valuable.

Jason thanks for your post. Watching for more.

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#21186 - 08/11/03 05:07 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Jalapeņa Offline
Star Member

Registered: 02/20/03
Posts: 1143
Loc: New Mexico
 Quote:
Originally posted by Carole:
Jala, that is so weird. Why would they think you were being mean?


Who knows? But hey, I try not to waste my energy trying to figure out why people think the way they do. Life's too short for me to allow people to drain my mental, emotional &/or physical resources.

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#21187 - 08/11/03 07:19 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Marcia Offline
Resident Member

Registered: 11/18/00
Posts: 354
Loc: Maple Grove, MN
Jason, your comments about technique and memory playing a part in good reading are so interesting. For some time now I have used the FJH Treasures in Technique with poor sight readers. The student plays the exercises 4 times each day X 7 days and puts a sticker on the chart in the back of the book when each exercise is memorized. Most exercises, BTW, are parallel first and then contrary motion. By the end of the book, whatever sightreading you put in front of the student is much easier! I just never reasoned out why this was so, just accepted that it worked!

I also use the Minnesota MTA sightreading materials, which are just great for transfer students or beginners. Sections included are counting and clapping, tapping, or playing rhythms, instant note identification, naming intervals on sight, use of tactile exercises [for example, close your eyes, start with 3rd finger on C, go down a 3rd, up a 5th, down a second, where are you?], and playing of short sightreading pieces. Out of 6 levels I can diagnose which level a transfer student needs to start on by using the "Sample Sightreading Tests" created to be used with the levels. Great stuff.

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#21188 - 08/11/03 08:00 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Jason Offline
Star Member

Registered: 05/14/00
Posts: 2019
Loc: Iowa City, IA
Okay...part 2:

Reading and Technique!

Technique - finger dexterity, arm mobility, and coordination

By finger dexterity or finger-independence, I simply mean that the individual fingers respond when you ask them to! It may seem obvious to us as seasoned pianists, but connecting a finger with a note and/or finger number is a learned task.

Piano Adventures addresses this early on by having students wiggle their ones, twos, threes, fours, and fives! Later on, it becomes important for students to be able to easily play a key with their ones, twos, threes, fours, and fives also. I used to be against the idea that finger numbers in the score was unhelpful, and if used as a crutch, it can be. But, a teacher of mine (who is a fantastic pianist!) once told me that he felt constant drill with finger numbers really helped him fine tune his dexterity. To this day, not even the most complicated Rachmaninoff poses much of a problem for him.

To get students thinking about their fingers, try these:

1) Exercises with five-finger patterns (pentascales) and early Hanon. Some students may prefer something like the popular Dozen-a-Day series.

2) Have a student follow these instructions: "Play a C, up a third, down a second, up a third, down a second. Now, what key are you on?" It's important that students be able to FEEL intervals this way.

The next important element of good reading technique is arm-mobility. Students should feel comfortable moving laterally across the keyboard. We can do this in several different ways - by extension, by leaping or changing position, and by finger crossings. I prefer to work them in that order. When choosing sight-reading exercises, I like to start with 5-finger patterns, then move to extensions (adding TI or LA). When introducing movement by leap, it helps to work with a piece that shifts between different five-finger patterns. (Remember Frances Clark, going from the unknown to the known!) It's also helpful if you begin with pieces that only require one hand to move while the other stays put.

Finally, coordination is very important. The key to good coordination is to always practice pentascales and scales hands-together. I've noticed that some teachers dislike teaching scales hands together, but they're doing their students a great disservice! The playing of 5-finger patterns, scales, and arpeggios hands together is a wonderful tool for training coordination between the hands. After all, if you can't do something as simple as a scale hands together, you'll have no chance when it comes to Bach and Mozart menuets! It's also very helpful to work pieces in different "coordination patterns."

Alberti bass is a coordination pattern, as are other common accompaniment patterns. Some teachers also have students do scale "formulas" - playing as scale in a set pattern of parallel and contrary motion (the famous "eyeglass" pattern, for example.)

So there you have it, a few thoughts on reading technique - an entire book could be written on this alone, but suffice it to say that technical ability is VERY important to a person's reading ability. One final thought - reading music requires a great deal of concentration, and tension only makes it worse. The freer a person's technique is, the more at ease they will feel reading at the keyboard. A major problem people have in keeping steady time when reading is that they "lock-up." A tension-free technique is the first step in getting rid of those scary lock-ups!

[ 08-11-2003: Message edited by: Jason ]
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)


www.pianoped.com

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#21189 - 08/12/03 03:56 PM Re: Teaching Reading
Lisa Kalmar Offline
Star Member

Registered: 04/10/00
Posts: 4277
Loc: KC
Jason, This is terrific stuff. I've always thought you have a somewhat "engineering" mind/approach to life and wondered how your thoughts are organized with beginners (and I just KNEW it would be organized! \:D ) This was even better than I hoped for. Please keep going.

One of the things I enjoyed reading about it that latest pedagogy textbook we've discussed here was her observation of student teachers. Do you have anything interesting to share? ;\)

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