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5 Things Every Piano Student Should Know Before Reading a Single Note

Early on in my teaching career, I feel that my biggest weakness as a teacher was placing too great and too early of an emphasis on reading notation. Reading music is an important part of music literacy that I still value deeply and introduce quickly, however, my lessons were becoming reading lessons instead of piano lessons. In the last few years I have learned that before diving into the world of musical notes and rhythms, there are foundational skills and understandings that can significantly enhance a child's readiness and ability to grasp music reading effectively. Guiding young learners through these initial steps is crucial in nurturing their musical aptitude and ensuring a smooth and stress free transition into reading music. In this blog post, we will explore five important things a child should know or be able to do before starting their journey into music literacy. These key areas not only prepare children for the complexities of music reading but also foster a deeper appreciation and love for music that will support their learning journey.

  1.  Keyboard Geography A child should have a deep and intimate familiarity with the physical layout and function of the keyboard. They should be able to identify the patterns of black and white keys and understand the concept of high and low sounds, as well as identify upward and downward movement. They should also be able to identify and locate all of the white keys. I also like them to be able to play up and down the keyboard chromatically, and understand the difference between half steps and whole steps, as well as major and minor thirds.

  2.  Rhythm For many students, rhythm is the most trying element of reading music. An analogy that I return to over and over is that before we learn to read, we learn to mimic and speak. A child should have a good grasp of basic rhythmic patterns and be able to clap or tap simple rhythms before reading music. I start with mimic games, and progress into counting while tapping simply rhythms. Once that is established, we move into identifying note values and tapping written rhythms. Before any of my students read a single note, they are able to accurately tap and count rhythms containing a mix of quarter, half, dotted half, whole, and eighth notes.

  3. Aural Skills and Improvisation Before I place notated music in front of my students, I want them to understand that music doesn't come from a page, rather, the page is a recipe for music that has already been created. I want them to understand that they have the power to create or recreate music using only their ears and hands. We spend a few weeks on mimicking, picking out simple melodies, learning pieces by rote, composing their own tunes, and most importantly, improvising together and independently before I place a sheet of paper in front of them. I carry on with these activities throughout their entire time studying with me.

  4. Basic Technique/Arm Weight Another hurdle to stress free reading is often a student's technique. I've seen students frequently understand the music in front of them, but struggle to command their hands well enough to respond properly. I like my students to be able to play effectively with arm weight behind a single finger, followed by fluent non-legato playing of a few five finger scales and simple melodies before they begin the process of introducing hand/eye coordination through reading. This has made a huge difference in how quickly they pick up the skill of reading once we begin.

  5. What inspires them! Perhaps most importantly, a child needs to have an interest in music and a willingness to learn. I nurture this by exposing them to a variety of musical styles and instruments, and encouraging them to explore sounds on the piano. We listen to different genres and eras of music, and I get them thinking by asking them if they enjoyed what they just heard, what instruments they heard, and what feeling it had or gave them. I teach them a bit about the composers or performers that they are hearing, and get them thinking about what they like or don't like, and why. We also explore tempos, textures, and emotions through improvisation. I've seen this process kindle a serious fire in several students, and a positive attitude towards learning music will motivate them to tackle the challenges of reading music with enthusiasm! By fostering a love for music, developing their listening skills, encouraging rhythmic proficiency, nurturing their fine motor skills, and instilling a sense of musical exploration, we can teach to the whole child, and equip students with the tools necessary for a successful and enjoyable learning experience. These foundational elements not only prepare children for the challenges of music literacy but also enrich their overall musical journey, making the process of learning to play the piano as rewarding as the music they will ultimately create. My goal is to set my students up for a lifelong love and understanding of music. I want reading to be one option of many important tools that they have at their disposal when they endeavor to play something at the piano - not the only one!

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