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The Rise of Music Illiteracy

The Rise of Music Illiteracy

On one hand, there are more parents today sending their kids to Music Lessons than 10 years ago. But, there is also an upward trend of piano students who are not able to READ MUSIC. Ironically, that piano student who cannot read music might have even completed grade 8, and has a reading ability of a grade 2 student. So what happened along the way? What could have caused such a mass music illiteracy rate to seemingly happen in the population of piano students overnight?

Cause #1: Going too fast

Parents want to chase certificates. Hence, they push for skipping of grades, faster than the student can absorb the music on the score. Just imagine having a 5 year old preschooler read a primary 1 textbook, or a secondary 4 student attempt a phD dissertation. If you cannot fathom that happening in the world of academic, why do we do that to Music Education?

For example, a child has completed grade 3, this is what a grade 3 piano exam piece looks like (from the current 2019 abrsm syllabus). 

And after the child has passed his grade 3, the parent now pushes for the child to skip to grade 5. This is what a grade 5 exam piece looks like:

The grade 5 piece is longer, about 3 pages in length. The music of grade 3 has a key signature of 1 flat, F major. The music of grade 5 has a key signature of 3 sharps, A major. New technical challenges in the grade 5 piece include better coordination: chords on the first page vs LH alberti bass on the second page, contrasting moods and character as the music moves from A major to A minor, RH also has ornaments on the second page. 

Many parents are unaware that the choice to skip grades put a strain on the child’s music learning rate. As the student struggles to learn the much more difficult piece of music, they resort to having to memorise the music, copy the teacher’s playing or write out the letter names of the notes on the music score.

Cause #2: Poor Foundation 

The skill of playing the piano is a mastery of pulse, rhythm and note reading laid on at the early years of picking up the skill to play the piano.

How the first teacher introduced the student to this skill of playing the piano is crucial and has a long lasting impact on the student’s relationship with Music and Piano playing for the rest of his life. So, if the child at 5 years old is allowed to look down at his fingers to find the correct notes to play, and this is not intercepted by the first piano teacher, bad habits creep in and it would be near to impossible to eradicate this bad habit later on.

Similarly, a child who memorizes the music after playing the music for a few days will develop the habit of not reading the music score but to play from his comfort zone of just playing by ear. For such students, the piano teacher can throw 3 to 4 new pieces each week at the student, play longer repertoire,  as well as do a lot of sight reading at the lesson to spur the student to combine their good ears with the use of their eyes and intellect in working out new pieces of music. 

Cause #3: Old fashion reading

Ask any proficient pianist if they rely on “All Cows Eat Grass” or “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to read their music score, and you will most likely get a ‘no’ for an answer. While the use of this strategy is a possible prop to read, it is nonetheless a poor strategy. The music must always be counted up from “All” to get to “Grass” and from “Every” to get to “Fine”.

Hence, the note reading is slow and labored as the student has to always resort to counting the lines and spaces. Imagine to get to the letter ‘z’ of the alphabet, you have to count from ‘A’. You have to develop your brain to instantly recognise the letter ‘Z’ intrinsically as a stand a lone letter, right? 

A good reader of music will tell you that the brain processes music in chunks of patterns. I personally find that the best strategy of efficient Music Reading is a combination of : reading in intervals, good keyboard geography, a keen sense of pulse, and most importantly, being able to hear the music internally before the execution of the sound. 

Cause #4: the rise of the internet and apps

These days, more and more people think that they don’t need a piano teacher to teach them to play an instrument, they can learn the skill online. Online learning works in a very broad sense, but the teaching is not directed at an individual. It is a one-size-fit-all approach. Learning online by watching youtube also works better for pop songs and contemporary pieces, where there is less attention to the finer details like tone, technique, motor execution etc. The playing of Classical Music requires much more finesse in the mastery and it is best learnt by the student from a face-to-face lesson with a teacher. 

I have also seen apps, where the student copies the lighted up keyboard, as the notes fall tetris style. The bird’s eye overview of the keyboard tells the students which note to depress. As a Pedagogue, this is a modernised version on ‘copying’. No learning takes place. The student is merely, ‘copying’ or ‘imitating’. Students on this mode will never become creators, or independant learners. They will merely be good at ‘copying’. So they need an app designer to design and show what a piece should ‘look like’ tetris style. 

So to all parents, students and piano teachers out there, fighting Music Illiteracy is much like fighting Dengue. It really takes a concerted effort from all parties out there. Just as a harmless mosquito bite can kill if it harbours the dengue virus, the rise of Music Illiteracy can KILL the future of Music if it is not curbed.

I am already getting students at the Diploma level with the reading skills of a grade 2. I shudder to think of the day when the piano teacher with a literacy level of a grade 2 teaching the next generation of musicians. 

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