Stay Sane Teaching Kids To Read Music

Stay Sane Teaching Kids To Read Music

If you’ve had any experience with younger kids, you know by now that it is extremely difficult to stay sane teaching kids to read music at the piano.

Teaching kids to read music will easily drive you insane if you expect children to understand reading music as an adult does. A child’s brain and an adult’s brain (in most cases) are quite different.

Children are just, at six, becoming aware of the world and embarking on interacting with it. But their brains are not yet fully developed. The evidence for this is in their lack of left-right hand coordination skills. Compare a 7 year old and a 12 year old in terms of dexterity at the piano and there is a world of difference. Five years of physical growth does wonders for a child’s ability to coordinate their hands.

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But reading music is mostly mental, not physical, and in this area, too, younger children naturally lag behind in terms of abstraction skills, memory and perceptions of multiple dimensions simultaneously (left/right, and slow/fast at the same time, for example.)

Even one dimension, up and down, may at times be taxing to a child, if you push again and again at a single concept. And timing is everything: on a bad day, a simple idea may not get through, whereas on a good day very complex ideas are sometimes grasped.

Reading music, similarly, requires the mastery of one concept before another can be laid upon it, so piano teachers find themselves hammering away at those first steps in hopes of getting the whole music reading mechanism going.

This is a crucial stage where it’s important not to let the child feel like a failure. If they don’t get an idea the first five tries, just back off, but not before you’ve figured out what the problem is. For example, you might be teaching the idea of notes moving up and down at the keyboard, and discover the child is hazy about the idea of left and right, a key precursor concept, without which you can’t teach up or down.

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So find out if a “precursor skill” is hazy before you hammer away at a music reading concept. Often the problem is a lack of an underlying skill that has to be solved with conceptual games before the greater idea can be attacked. Learn how to properly prepare the simplest of concepts in reading music (up/down, left/right, etc.) before you demand they understand a larger concept.

And sometimes the obstacle is purely physical. For example, very young kids, 4-6, may have trouble moving the fingers separately. Thus, any attempt to teach fingering will not go well unless prepared with dexterity games aimed at making the fingers perform as a group.

And the simplest idea to keep in mind is to not ever let the child feel a failure at reading music. I whisk away the music reading book and move to something else before they can form the idea of themselves at a failure.

For example, I may have a child find Middle C on the page perhaps 50 times before I try to move ahead and have them find any other notes or ideas. When they are absolutely sure of the Middle C building block, we move to something that amplifies upon it, like the note next to it, and other notes on the lines of the staff.

Simply distinguishing between Middle C and the note on the lowest line of the staff (3) may be a huge task for a child, one that consumes weeks of small blasts of work. Kids take their own time to be sure of things, but, once sure, it’s almost written in stone and you can build upon it. So go slowly.

Working in such a “modular” fashion has benefits for a child, for they are never subjected to lengthy sessions of mind-numbing music reading, but rather to short bursts of it posed as games.

A musical staff referenced to a piano keyboard using removable stickers.
Relate notes on the page to piano keys

Now that you know the proper attitude, here are the rough steps you should follow. Each of these steps may take weeks, depending the child and their age:

Find Middle C on the page and the piano.
Find the five lines of the staff, on the page and on the piano, using the five stickers of the Piano by Number system.
Find the spaces in between the lines, on the page and on the piano.
Now restrict yourself to the first 5 notes above Middle C, in Piano by Number these are 1 2 3 4 5. Every method starts with this simple group of white keys.
Look at page after page of notes and have the child identify whether notes are
1.) on a line

2.) on a space

3.) on it’s own little line, Middle C.

Description of musical staff with lines and spaces
How to distinguish Middle C

Don’t proceed further until the child can identify any note’s line/space status as above, both on the page and on the piano.
Once these above ideas are firmly in mind, try songs that involve the first three notes, C D E or 1 2 3 in Piano by Number. Have them try to read these three notes. Whisk it away when they get bored. Eventually they will get it.

Most confusion is because they child doesn’t know how to coordinate the “up” on the page with the “up” on the piano. Working with so many dimensions and locations (page/piano) is confusing until they have tried it many times, and it is your job to see that those many times are passed agreeably and without frustration.

Make sure each step is mastered separately, and make music outside of reading music, and the child will slowly learn how to read music.

Most of all don’t make the mistake of thinking that reading music is all that matters and consequently overemphasize it. It’s not the most important thing.

What matters most is the child’s willingness to return and try again.

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

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