I’ve noticed my young students are particularly adept imitators and not entirely convinced about the usefulness of reading. Persuading a 5 year old that reading music is a practical skill is an arduous task. Not having been around long enough to understand the difference between long and short term benefits, most 5 year olds adamantly prefer the imitation route as it results in an immediate ability to play the piece. Reading is hard work.

From the teacher’s perspective, reading provides much faster learning. The student can go home, learn new material on their own, and come to the lesson to receive assistance in the difficult areas. Teaching by rote/imitation only allows the student to learn whatever is taught in the lesson and no more. That’s an hour of learning per week and 6 days of review vs 7 days of learning.  The student who reads becomes a much more independent musician.

The first few months of lessons contain a lot of new information. I explain how music notation works at the pace each student can handle. If you are 4, it may be a few months before you learn about sharps and flats. If you are 40, it will be a couple weeks. But unless someone is about to cry from frustration, I rarely show where the note is on the piano or where to place the hands. This kind of training results in “mean teacher” moments. It means I will sit there while the student painstakingly works his way through a new piece. It’s grueling, but the result is worth it. Each time the student gets better and faster at reading new music.

This is the complete opposite of the way I teach physical technique and musical expression. After the student has read the piece on his own, then I play to demonstrate technique. On a side note, when the student encounters a new piece, I often sing the music while pointing at each note so that my students know what the piece is supposed to sound like without seeing where I put my hands. One of my 4 year old students has recently started sight-singing unfamiliar material with no particular training other than seeing me do it!

Note reading doesn’t happen overnight even if you theoretically understand every symbol. It takes practice to interpret the symbols without continuous pauses to decode a tricky chord here and a weird rhythm there. If I show the student where to put his hands, it will just take him that much longer to learn to figure it out on his own. Most adults quickly realize the advantages of being able to learn independently. Kiddos. . . not so much.

I do what I can to make it a pleasant experience, joking around, expressing sympathy, offering encouragement, and being exuberantly happy when students succeed. But there is no question that learning to read music is hard work.