(or 2 or 3 months)!!!

CC BY-ND by Dark Dwarf

CC BY-ND by Dark Dwarf


How are they supposed to read better if they don't start by reading?

Is she crazy? (that's a whole other topic for another discussion!)

This question always provokes a lot of controversy. (No, not the one about me being crazy – no argument there, that is true 😉

There are those teachers that teach the “traditional” method where playing technique and reading are taught at the same time.  A vast majority of method books are designed this way.

There are others who feel it is best to teach the playing technique without adding the extra stress of reading notes. Those teachers spend the first few lessons focusing on playing technique and using simple fingering charts for the first few notes.

(For those of you who are parents, this blog does apply to you. Just as it is important to know how your children are learning math, science etc in school, it is equally important for you to know how your child learns music.)

Many music teachers (and administrators) believe that the ultimate goal for their students is to perform music by reading it.  Reading shows true comprehension.

Is that really true? If a student in an English class reads a passage out loud with perfect pronunciation of all the words do they truly understand what they read? Doesn’t comprehension come from explaining what one has read in one’s own words, drawing conclusions and finding comparisons and relationships to other ideas? Isn't that what Common Core is trying to achieve?

How does this relate to reading music better?

If you look at the songs in any beginning band method book, you notice that they are not notated the way they are traditionally sung.  As a result, when the student learns to read and play the song, he/she doesn’t recognize it and has difficulty performing it. Once the student realizes what the song is, he/she tends to play it the way they know it (with the more complicated rhythms). Band teachers try to fix the “wrong” rhythms, but to no avail because the popular song is ingrained in the student’s mind.

If a student performs the first notated version of Hot Cross Buns below, can they feel that the song is in a duple meter (small beats felt in sets of 2)?  Does it sound the way they know the song is sung (example #2 below)? Can they hear the relationships between the notes and the different chords (Tonic and Dominant)?

HCB-Most Method Books-Learning by Rote Part 1000 Learning by Rote Part 2000

What about the teacher that focuses on the playing technique first?  When they give their students fingering charts for simple songs, are the letter names or pictures in the order they appear in the song? Or is it just a simple fingering chart and they ask the student to use their ears and figure out how to play the song? Writing letter names in the order they appear in the song evokes the same issues of comprehension. The student is not learning to be an independent learner. These students tend to wait for the teacher to tell them how the music is supposed to sound.

Let’s use another analogy. Would you consider sticking a 400 page novel in front of a 5 year old and expect them to read and understand it? Even if they were brilliant, would they truly comprehend the material? The child needs to be exposed to a vast vocabulary by his/her parents reading and speaking phrases, sentences and stories. Then the child babbles back, eventually speaking words and complete sentences. Years later, the child learns to read based upon all the vocabulary acquired.

How can we expect a beginning instrumentalist to physically manipulate a new, heavy expensive instrument while attempting to read black dots on a music staff with minimal exposure to a musical vocabulary? This is the equivalent of the 400 page novel being given to the 5 year old.

Comprehension in music starts when students have listened, moved and sung many songs in different meters (duple, triple, compound, etc) and tonalities (major, minor, Mixolydian, etc).  By participating in this way, students build up a musical vocabulary they can draw from when figuring out how to play songs by ear, and eventually learning how to read them. Wouldn’t the learning be more effective if, for example, the students listened to a quality performance of a song on their chosen instrument, could hear the song in their head afterwards, sing it back by themselves, figure it out using a simple fingering chart of the notes in the song, and perform it with a piano or guitar accompaniment so they can hear the chord changes?

Think about how Jazz or Rock musicians learn to solo or improvise. They listen to a recording many times until they can sing it back.  Then they figure it out on their instrument, a little bit at a time with all the nuances of the performance. After doing this for a number of different solos, they have built up a “vocabulary” that will help them create their own solos.

True comprehension really occurs when a student can improvise and compose his/her own music. This is equivalent to students understanding words well enough to carry on an intelligent conversation with others.

So……..Which method is best for beginners? Can one approach work for most students? If you are a teacher, think about your own method of teaching.

Are your students always asking, “How does it go?” 

If you are a parent, is your child performing songs the way they are supposed to sound, or is it unrecognizable?

Let me know in the Comments section below….

By the way, some of you may be thinking, “How can a true beginner play songs right away? They need to learn technique first.” I will address that issue here!

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