How familiar is this story?…

Young Alexa is so excited about learning the clarinet. Her grandmother played it when she was young, and she really loves her grandmother.

She just started 4th grade, which is the year to start band instruments.

She goes to her 1st music lesson, and her teacher covers: assembling the reed, making sounds on the mouthpiece, putting the instrument together, and playing the three notes that are on page 5 of the method book.

Alexa’s head is swimming. She is normally a top student, but she couldn’t follow along during the lesson because she could not make a sound yet. She was upset about that, and couldn’t pay attention to reading the notes on page 5, so she doesn’t understand what all those black dots mean on the page.

During the week, she practices assembling the reed and the instrument, and gets really good with that task. She still has difficulty getting a sound, and mom can’t help because she played flute when she was younger.

Alexa tries to figure out the reading. She starts to understand that each dot falls in a line or space and has a letter name. She just has difficulty remembering the names.

Alexa attends her 2nd lesson, and is quite nervous because she still can’t play a sound and is still unsure about the notes.

The teacher goes one-by-one down the row and gives encouragement and tips to help each student get a good tone. She gets to Alexa, and also gives her the same encouragement and tips, and a little squeak comes out, but not a solid tone. Alexa is a little more excited because she thinks she can start to figure it out now at home.

The teacher teaches 2 more new notes and then moves on to the note reading. Some students are getting it, a bunch are not. The bell rings and the lesson ends. The assignment is to read and play page 6 for next week.

Alexa goes home and works really hard getting a sound. She still squeaks a lot but she has made progress. She spends the entire week working on her sound and feels better about herself. She doesn’t even look at the reading because it’s not important to her. She just wants to play the instrument.

The 3rd lesson arrives, and Alexa is excited because she has made progress with her sound. But she’s also nervous because she didn’t do the reading.

Sure enough, the teacher checks everyone’s progress with producing the sound and reading. Alexa starts to get really nervous, and squeaks often and cannot remember the note names. The teacher tells her to practice more and do that assignment again for next time, in addition to the next page that’s assigned.

Alexa is feeling heart-broken. She can’t understand why she can’t get the sound and the reading when her friends are starting to get it. She is feeling embarrassed as her friends are watching and whispering to each other.

She goes home and tells her mom she wants to quit. She lies and says it’s because she doesn’t like it anymore, but the truth is that she feels over-whelmed trying to produce the right sound and read at the same time. Since mom doesn’t want her daughter to continue something she isn’t happy with, she calls the teacher and tells her Alexa is quitting clarinet.

Has this happened to you?

Why is there all this pressure to read and play at the same time?

Many instrumental teachers are pressed to start their students reading music notation and learning a new instrument at the same time. With all the new teacher evaluations relying on test results, many music tests rely on children reading music as the evaluation for student and teacher.

Administrators, and teachers, have mistakenly believed that teaching reading right away will build every student’s music reading skills and make them better musicians. In fact, the opposite is true.

Teaching random notes that are not part of a musical pattern or phrase makes it very difficult for the child to assimilate this information and provide meaning to it so that it makes sense. This does not keep students excited about playing their instrument.

Think about how we teach children language. Do you start by opening up a textbook to an infant and showing them individual letters? Or do you speak baby talk, or babble, for many months, and words and sentences for even longer?

Why do we insist upon combining music reading (when there’s not enough understanding) with learning to hold an instrument, maintain good posture and breathe efficiently to get a good tone?

Not only is this very stressful for a majority of your students, it is also very unlikely they will fully understand or pay attention to the note reading because they are so focused on handling their instrument properly.

Dr. Edwin Gordon, a world-renowned scholar and jazz bassist, has done extensive research into how we learn music. He has determined that music, of which he does not consider a separate language, is learned similarly to language. Children need to build upon past experiences in order to form words and sentences. If language is not spoken to a child over the span of many years, that child will not develop his/her speaking, listening and writing skills. If music is not performed, or played over the stereo for many years during a child’s formative years, that child’s musical learning will be somewhat stunted. There will be no musical vocabulary to draw upon when learning to sing or play an instrument. (See Dr. Gordon’s monumental book, Learning Sequences in Music, from GIA Publications, for more information.)

So what’s that one tip?

Students need to develop a musical vocabulary. So…..

Have them sing! Yes, you heard (read) me right – have them sing!

Singing many simple rote songs builds a child’s musical vocabulary. The more songs a child can recall and sing without hesitation, the more music vocabulary available to that child to draw from for learning more songs.

Even with a few years of general music classes, students still need to sing simple songs that are in duple and triple meters, different tonalities, etc., so that they have a frame of reference to draw upon for understanding.

Give your students a musical background first – have them learn to sing easy rote songs like Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge many times so that the song sticks in their head and they can recall it when asked.

Here's some more tips…

Don’t just teach the familiar songs in a major key; have them learn to sing it in a minor key or even Dorian mode.

Don’t teach songs only in duple meters of 2/4 and 4/4; sing the songs in triple meters like 6/8 and 3/4.

Change the time feel so that students are playing to a Waltz beat or a Swing beat.

Ideally, once students have learned to sing a few songs in a variety of tonalities and meters, and have moved their bodies to the big and small beats, they would be ready to learn an instrument.

However, an instrumental teacher can start off the lesson with students learning to sing these songs, have students echo familiar tonal and rhythm patterns (to also build musical vocabulary) and focus on the technique of performing for at least the first 3 months. This will build a solid technical foundation as well as build up your students’ ears and musicality. When the time comes to start teaching reading, students will have the requisite background to be able to understand the notes they are seeing on the page.

Watch the video below for a quick easy way to learn Hot Cross Buns that’s fun and exciting for beginners and intermediate performers.


Action Steps:

  1. If you enjoyed this article, please SHARE it with your friends and colleagues.
  2. If you want more resources on Reading Music, click here.
  3. Check out my Online Video Lessons for beginner brass and saxes if you want to build your music vocabulary and reading skills.