There is no a priori reason why a student who plays the piano with facility should have a parallel ease in reading their notes.

I once tutored a high school junior in trigonometry.  At first the process resembled peeling an onion.  For each math skill that depended on her knowing a previous and more basic skill, examination showed that she was not  comfortable with that simpler ability either.   When we finished stripping back these layers one by one, we ended up with her being, figuratively speaking, back in the second grade, and being confused by the multiplication table.  Thus, that is where we began: with the multiplication  table.   When she mastered that we went out one layer of the onion, and so on patiently until successfully building things back to trigonometry.

Occasionally I will get a teen-aged piano student who excels technically, rhythmically and musically, but is crippled at sight reading.  Usually the student is bright, musical and has a good year.  They managed to keep their teachers in the dark about not being careful about note reading.   They had devised many ‘short cuts’ for knowing what note to play – many of which were far more complicated than if they had learned at an early stage to read.

Taking my cue from the experience I had with the girl learning trigonometry, I went on a search for the more specific, more basic “component” abilities on which sight reading depends.  I was surprised by what some of the missing pieces were:

These are some of the questions I have learned to put to the student:

#1, Do you see that the horizontal lines across the page come in separated groups?

#2 Is there a constant number of lines within each group? Can you point out the middle of the five lines?

#3 Are there spaces between neighboring lines?

#4 Is there a way to number the lines and the spaces?

#5 Should the lines have one set of numbers and the spaces another set of numbers?

#6 Would you say that line number ‘one’ is the top one of the five lines or the one at the bottom?

#7 Would you number them differently in bass clef than treble clef*.

Each time I encountered a student who had transferred to me recently from another teacher, I got more practice ferreting out more of these (to us) obvious descriptors of what the eye sees on the page.

#1 Describe in words the difference in appearance of middle C notated in treble clef and notated in bass clef.

#2 How does one position a note on a staff?

#3 How much does the note need to move up or down for it to change its name?

#4 What does it mean for a note to be “on” a line (sitting on a line or having the line run through its middle). What does it mean for a note to be “in” a space.  (does the student look at a note that I call being “in a space” and see it instead as “resting on a line?

#5 After reviewing the recycling of the white keys at the octave, then ask: if each line or space represented a “musical” letter, or how many letters are there?

#6 Can you recite these letters both forwards and backwards?

So many components to a “single” understanding of the notation system!  If any one is missing or simply unclear, how much of the entire nexus of perceptual abilities remain confusing or unclear.  We depend so much on our students and the tradition that what the student is trying to learn is a coherent system of related concepts and perceptions.  When the student turns out to be having difficulty reading their notes, it is so easy to blame the student and trust in the a priori sensibleness of the notation system.

-+- (to start here again with the student if necessary) See below. -+-

Can the student ‘sort’ through the three following ‘pairs’ of values, so as to match one of each pair with one from the other two pairs?

#1 the left-right space of the keyboard.

#2 the up-down space of the staff,

#3 the alphabet going forwards or backwards?

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If you go “up” from a C on the keyboard do you travel left or right from the C?  Is the letter I get to thereby a B or a D?  If the student’s answer is B, what are the possible reasons for that answer:

#1  the student knows that the direction they are to move on the keyboard has the name “to the right” but was mixed up which is their left hand which is their right hand.  So part of their answer would actually be “correct”, while a second part is incorrect.

#2. The student, knowing their left from their right, has wrongly “mapped” ahead in the alphabet onto movement to the left.  Again, in part their answer is “correct” but it is based on a different part than applied in case number one.

Take nothing for granted.  The teacher may be ‘confused’ about the what is the student’s ‘confusion’.  Try to pin down the exact nature of the confusion, then go back to square one with the student, and start over again showing the student how to associate terms together

(see above: “start here again with the student if necessary”

I did not know my left from my right until I was 11 or 12 years old.  I still have trouble with it.  Every time I try to describe, in one of these blogs, anything involving relationships in space, I have to check and recheck that I am describing it correctly.

If it is difficult for the student say the alphabet backwards, let alone map it onto a staff or the keyboard, start with small and easily reversible ‘chunks’ to say out loud, such as:

ABCBA then CBA

CDEDC then EDC

EFGFE then GFE

FGAGF then AGF

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Here is a miscellaneous kaleidoscope of activities for students with sight reading issues, each one helping to reinforce the others, and thus best done in concert with the others:

#1 The student says out loud the name of the note they are currently playing, without having to double check the name by looking down at the keyboard and seeing where their finger is.

#2 The student describes the position on the staff of the note they are about to play.

#3 The student says things out loud like: “That’s a ‘B’ because it is on the middle line of treble clef”; “this is a Middle C because it is one line above bass clef”; etc..

#4 Make sure the student has the vocabulary to describe both what is similar and what is different about two notes that have the same letter and staff position but which have different rhythmic values.

#5 Have the student say whether the next note to be played lies “up” from the previous note, “down” from the previous note, or is the same pitch  twice in a row.

#6 Have the student give the letter name for one note from a piece they are about to learn, and then ask them to go through the remainder of the score and identify all other instances of the same pitch.

#7 The teacher points to a random note in the score and asks the student to play it.  This, at first, is somewhat effective in preventing the student from thinking “up” or “down” from the previous note in the score, though eventually the student will simply retain an afterimage of the previous note to which to compare the current note.

#8 Use the “Joe Bloom note reading program for PC computers”.  I am happy to send you a copy.  Sorry, it doesn’t work on an Apple.  I am also happy to send some strategies on how to make the most effective use of it.

#9 Use the “Wright Way Note Finder”. Though I don’t think it is marketed any more, you can find them on Amazon and Ebay.  Young students like turning the knob and causing the (single) note to move up and down against the background lines and spaces of treble and bass clef.  This is useful to make precise the vertical positioning of a note that is in a space, or on a line; or to determine the exact point, when gradually turning the know, that the note changes its letter identity.

The student can randomly change the note and have the teacher either play or same the name of the note (or both).  Doing this gives the student instant feedback to satisfy their curiosity about what changing the pitch of the note means and how it maps onto the keyboard.  Plus it gives the student a sense of power and control over the teacher – always a good thing.

#10 Jumping to conclusions

Students are always looking for ‘patterns’ that will make things easier for them and cut down on the amount of mental effort that goes into figuring out the identity of first one and then another in a stream of notes.  For instance, in a measure of 4/4 times there are four quarter notes.  The first three are moving up the staff step-wise.  The fourth note has the same pitch as the third.  The student is inclined to think that the “solution” to the problem is to find the unifying concept or pattern that applies to all the notes, and assumes the fourth note is a step higher than the third.  Another example would be in a piece that repeats a four bar phrase identically except for one note alteration.

#11 One of two ways to use note-flash-cards. Put two or more cards in a line from left to right, all in the same clef, each one being a position higher than the one to its left.  Tell the student to watch closely because the teacher is going to rearrange the order of the cards, after which it is the student’s job to return them to their original order.  Start by switching the leftmost and rightmost cards, and do it with exaggerated physical gestures.  At this point the student may garner all the necessary information simply by watching the physical movements of the teacher.  Then start mutually exchanging the positions of two cards, starting with cards that are adjacent, and eventually any two randomly chosen cards.  By the time you have finished this phase of the process the student most likely will have developed an intuitive understanding of the criteria for ordering the cards.  Then, one can do more complicated shuffling of positions: among 3 cards, 4 etc..  It is not necessary to keep track of what criteria the student is using to restore the original order among the cards; it is sufficient that the rearrangements get, gradually, more and more complex, and entail more and more cards.

#12 Another and more elaborate and robust way to use flash-cards. Allthe cards are spread out in an random arrangement on a flat surface.  The student is asked to pick two at random.  Inform the student of the identity of each. Then hide them momentarily, randomize their order, then show them one at a time and ask the student to name the note.

Then begins a process by which, one at a time, new cards are added to the ‘deck’.  With the addition of each new card, the ‘deck’ is shuffled and the cards shown to the student one at a time for identification.

Before adding the next new card to the deck, the cards that are currently in the deck should be reshuffled a number of times (more times when the there are more cards).  With each shuffle the same cards appear but in a different order.  This prevents the student from memorizing the order of the cards.  When enough shuffles have occurred, the student chooses the next card to add to the deck.

By letting the student shuffle the deck each time before going through the cards again, and by letting the student choose the next card to add to the deck, the student is ‘controlling’ what notes they are learning.

Each time the student chooses a new card for the deck, the teacher tells them what the new note is.

As the student becomes more proficient at this ‘game’, the teacher can control how long the student can look at the next card in the deck before giving an answer.  For instance, if the student takes longer than a second to identify the note, the teacher can provide the answer for the student, without implying that anything negative is happening.  This is a way of steering the student away from “figuring it out”, instead of instantly recognizing the note from its clef and staff position.

Please let me know if you want me to post more teaching ideas for beginners learning their notes.

* If the student has learned their notes starting with middle C and radiating out in both directions, it is not uncommon for the student to call the bottom line of treble clef “line number one”, and the top line of bass clef, again, as “line number one”.