I was in my favourite music shop the other day (Sedley Wells, in Christchurch – I’m not paid to say that 🙂 ), and Lois made the comment that people are interested in a piano course that has music that their children would know. That is fine if they are just wanting to learn to play by ear. But if someone really wants practice at the skill of reading music, they really need to do so with music that is unfamiliar.

In Headstart Piano (my piano course for beginners) I also include the skill of playing by ear, but this is separate from the pieces the pupil is learning to read from. Let me explain why.

Think about the process of beginner readers learning to read words. They are encouraged to read in a range of different contexts so that they really get to recognise those words wherever they turn up. We don’t expect them to merely memorise whole books, because when their eyes are not decoding words, phrases and larger language chunks they are not truly practising the art of reading. For example, we have a family video of our daughter Esther at the age of 3 “reading” ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’  – complete with book on lap, turning the pages at the appropriate times. But we all knew that she had memorised it from hearing it being read over and over to her. She was following the pictures to prompt her. At some point, to read properly she had to start learning to read actual words in contexts she had not come across.

Let’s apply this to learning to read music.  I have seen young beginners struggle with reading the notes when they have been memorising their pieces. My aim is for them to show me that they are actually recognising the notes as they go along. So I prefer to mostly give them pieces they haven’t come across. They are learning to read notes with something that is not familiar. This way it is like the music is unfolding before them as they step by step gain the skill of reading. The more they recognise the notes in different pieces, the quicker their recognition and the faster they learn to read. This is why at this early stage I very rarely play a piece first that a pupil is going to learn. Once they have read it through for themselves, then I may play it through to show them how it will sound once they have become fluent. But by playing it for them first I would be essentially letting them learn by ear and not focusing on the skill of reading.

Learning to play by ear is also an important skill, something also covered in lessons, and a topic I will look at further in a subsequent post.

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