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Teaching Young Children Music Notation

Some teachers teach reading music notation to young children, but do not check if the student has understood. Or if the child is able to independently read music notes. When new beginner level music is taught to the student, sometimes the pieces do come back well played after a week of practice, but teachers need to be on a constant alert for red flags that pop up to indicate that the student is not reading.

  1. Playing by ear
    I once had a parent who was very proud that his child could ‘memorize’ his music and play without looking at the notes by mid-week after his piano lessons. Actually, what the child is doing is not ‘memorising’ but playing by ear. He has memorized the sound and is merely going through the motions without engaging eye-to hand-to ear coordination. Students who start off playing by ear end up copying the piano teacher. This kind of student are usually poor sight readers as well.
  2. Staring at the music score with a glazed look
    Teachers, look at how the student’s eyes track the music score as they play a piece of music. If their eyes look glazed, they are fooling you to think that they are reading. One of my pet peeve is the digital screen that children are exposed to at a young age. When young children are too used to seeing things off a digital screen, they find real printed music very uncomfortable to read. They have difficulty seeing the lines of the music stave, much less, to make out which line or space the music note is written on.
  1. Seeing notes without a sound attached to the note
    I teach my students solfege from the beginning. We always sing at the piano lesson. We might sing finger numbers, letter names or sol-fa as we play. This helps students to integrate a sound to the printed note. Music should not be merely ‘note punching’ as this will create a dry and mechanical sound.
  1. Spelling notes vs Intervallic reading
    In the days of John Thompsen, I was taught music notation by recognizing note and spelling them. Then when I became a piano teacher, I found that the intervallic and landmark reading approaches to music reading produced a more fluent reader. You are maneuvering through the sounds of the piano by relating the spatial distances between the pitches rather than one note by one note. It is as if a dancer feels the flow between the steps, rather than concentrating on the steps itself.

A good foundation is important if the student is to go far in learning Western Classical Music. There are some excellent Pop and Jazz musicians that play totally by ear. But a musician playing by ear will not be able to play the great classics like the piano sonatas and concertos written by the likes of Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin etc.

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