Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Who says Suzuki students can't sight read? Like so much that's true of unschooling, in the Suzuki world children may not learn sight-reading on some tidy adult-determined schedule, but they learn it when they are ready and they learn it well. No, they don't learn at age 4 when they first pick up a violin or sit down at the piano, but they learn when they are developmentally ready and when the fundamental musical skills they've learned give context and meaning to that learning.
Erin started violin at 4 and piano a couple of years later. Despite being a fluent and precocious reader of language, she was clearly not ready to grapple with the written notation of music during those early years. She moved easily into Suzuki Book 3 having had only off-instrument instruction in note-reading until that point. Note reading began to fall into place for her in Book 3. She was almost 7.
On piano she had a traditional teacher who was sensitive to the Suzuki way and who understood that Erin's ability to play music very well for her age didn't necessarily mean she ought to have precocious sight-reading skills. She was allowed to learn ahead mostly by ear and her auditory-musical ability was valued and supported, rather than held hostage to her virtually non-existent reading skills. When she changed teachers a little over two years later, her new teacher (whom she's still with) was rather appalled at her reading skills. She was playing RCM Grade 4 repertoire, but couldn't name any note outside the middle of the treble staff. Fortunately Erin's sight-reading on violin had just begun to take off and her piano reading soon started to kick in.
Nevertheless it was an ongoing concern for her piano teacher. Her reading skills clearly "lagged behind expectations." Being a Suzuki teacher, I was unconcerned. Erin and I went through the motions to some extent, but there certainly wasn't a lot of "buckling down to remediate deficits." Her apparent deficits were much smaller within a year or so, because she was clearly ready to start reading, but I know that her piano teacher had pegged her as "one of those kids who plays wonderfully by ear but will never be a good sight-reader." But then over the past two or three years both her violin and piano sight-reading skills have taken off, just in a natural way. No slogging through sight-reading exercises. Just playing for enjoyment, and learning music for ensembles and orchestras. The roots of good sight-reading skills had been growing for a long time, and it just took a few years before we saw the shoots and leaves and fruits.
Last spring, after a long period of neglecting sight-reading in the lesson, Erin's piano teacher decided to test her skills with some graded exercises. She was playing at an RCM Grade 9 level at the time, and knowing she was a weak sight-reader her teacher started her off with some Grade 7 exercises. She did flawlessly. Gradually the teacher upped the challenge, and upped it again, and again ... and finally stopped when Erin aced a Grade 10 exercise. Excuse my self-satisfied smirk. Amazing what happens when you support children in developing their strengths rather than focusing on their apparent weaknesses, and when you re-frame their weaknesses as nothing more than asynchronicities in learning readiness.
The audio clip is of Erin's first play-through the Katchaturian Toccata. She'd never seen these notes before playing the sounds you hear -- it's all just on the fly, with lots of bumps and gibbles and retakes. But she's way beyond me in piano reading ability and I'm just in awe.
Labels: Music education