Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Who says they can't sight-read?

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.


  1. Wow! Did you read my mind? I was just discussing this today with R's piano and violin teacher. I have noticed that her note reading has actually gone backwards as her ability to make the sound that she hears or want to make has increased. She has an incredible ear (like her dad who is a professional musician and can't read music)and as she has learned how to use it, her need to actually read the music has decreased. She is scheduled for both her grade 1 exams this year and I was starting to wonder if this was really the route to take. Has Erin taken exams? There seems to be so much focus on sight reading, although I notice it is only 10% of the mark.

  2. No, no, none of my kids has ever done exams. My philosophy with music exams is exactly the same as my philosophy with the FSA testing -- if my kids are happy to do the exam, and if it requires no extra preparation that diverts them from what is truly important and meaningful to them about their learning, than that's fine, they can do the exam. So far that hasn't been the case with either the FSA or a music exam for any of my kids. And there's absolutely no one in my kids' lives who believes music exams are important, so I don't think that is going to change.

  3. Hi! I love reading your posts. And this one focusing on their strengths -- ahhhh... My boy is nine and not reading yet (just plain reading, not sight-reading! Just words, not notes) and it thrills me every time I find anything at all that backs up my conviction that he will learn when he's ready and not because we're doing boring and repetitive drills and making him feel bad for what he can't do. Hurray for your self-satisfied smirk! The piano piece is beautiful.

  4. You know, Miranda, I think what you are saying can be applied to so many areas of learning as a general philosophy. I have seen the same general pattern for my own kids in reading, both English and Hebrew. We never worried about tests, and except for one disastrous situation not under my control, both my kids have become good readers by reading enjoyable literature.

    By the way, I am amazed at what I heard on the clip! I kept saying to myself, "and she's never seen the notes!" It all works out, doesn't it?

  5. Oh my.

    My now-12-year-old learned to read music at the same time he was learning to read English. He also did a lot of ear-training at the same time. We were singing in a choir, and he turned on to music and started exploring. By the time he was 6, he could sight-sing music. When he started piano, it wasn't long before he could sight-read anything put before him. He often reads music for pleasure, like many of the rest of us might read a novel.

    Now this was all child-led (with the help of several adults, an electronic keyboard, and the Music Ace computer program), and he has a lot of raw talent. I've known he had perfect pitch since he was very small, and he has a deep intuitive understanding of music theory. He got the idea of keys and chords when he was 5, for example. It really jazzed him that there was a language to express these truths.

    Anyway, I have sometimes wondered whether the Suzuki idea of holding back on written music is a good idea for every kid. Or whether it, like some of the Waldorf ideas, might lead to underdevelopment.

    I do know that my son's facility with written music allows him to get more deeply into his pieces. He doesn't have to struggle over the notes. As soon as he sees them, he knows their pitch, how long they are, and where they're located on the keyboard.

    I don't know whether his experience is generalizable, whether children could learn to read music naturally by following the same course he did. As far as I know, no other child in that choir learned to sight-read as a result.

    But it's intriguing, the idea that children might, if given the right sort of environment, learn to read music as easily and naturally as many of them learn to read English. And that they might be able to ground that learning in the music that's all around them.

    For Malcolm, written music is a symbol system that more easily allows him to think about music. It gives shape to his thoughts. It's never taken anything from his music learning; it's made the whole experience richer.

  6. Heather, thanks for the comments. Perhaps I presented a mistaken impression. I'm not advocating with-holding note-reading from kids who are naturally inclined to learn it, nor am I suggesting that music education is poorer if note-reading is learned early.

    If I recall, Malcolm was not a 3-year-old or 4-year-old piano beginner ... he was a bit older (five or six maybe?), and therefore I think it not surprising that he was ready to learn to read music as he learned to play piano. I actually wondered whether Fiona would learn to read music and play music at the same time. She got very interested in musical notation shortly after her 4th birthday and we definitely worked with her on that. She was able to learn to read simple rhythms and pitches on the A- and E-strings and sight-sing one-octave tunes. As it turned out her interest only lasted a couple of months, at which point her by-ear playing took off again, and she was able to learn complex stuff by ear that she had no hope of learning to decode -- stuff with key changes and compound metres and syncopations and ornaments and different bowing patterns and the like. (And of course there's the additional challenge that written notation doesn't translate nearly as simply and intuitively from the page to the violin fingerboard as it does from the page to the piano keyboard.) For a variety of reasons, her reading didn't keep pace with her playing ability on violin.

    So all I'm saying is that when children start their instrumental study young and progress rapidly, it is not necessary to insist that their note-reading learning commence immediately and progress at the pace one might expect from an older student.

    Erin is one of the strongest visual learners I know and the written music definitely gives the same kind of enrichment to her musical learning that it does for Malcolm. But for whatever reason she wasn't ready to use that tool when she was 6. And I guess I'm just trying to point out that it's all come out in the wash -- even though we didn't insist she remedy those asynchronicities in her learning, she's ended up an absolutely dynamite sight-reader, better than the vast majority of students at her level.

  7. Doesn't sound to me like she's got a problem with sight-reading. Great job, Erin. I enjoyed your comments. I've experienced that good ear training enhances sight-reading ability. When i was playing in the university orchestra, I was often able to amaze the conductor by sight-reading difficult passages in brand new music that I'd never seen or played before--because I'd heard that music so often on the radio or recordings. The college students who were 6-10 years older than me and hadn't been Suzuki students, otoh, struggled for weeks over those same passages. I'm a firm believer in music LISTENING as an important tool in music education.

  8. So, Miranda, you have really got me thinking (actually I was really thinking before but yours is a refreshing voice to ponder). Right now, R is wanting to take the exams and even excited about it. Of course she has no idea what they are like and I have no idea either as none of my older children were so inclined. But it is starting to feel like our whole year is gearing towards 'the' exam and all this furor about sight reading. If you were to describe an exam to a child - what it took to be ready and what it was like during, how would you describe it? I suppose we could do the exam and not even worry about the sight reading at all and whatever she does, she does. Not sure what to do yet... Is there anything good that comes from doing an exam?

  9. Hi Andrea, you're pretty much outside my realm of experience since I've never had one of my kids do an exam, and the only students I've had who have done them have been teens doing them for high school credit -- and that was the good that came from the exam for them. My mom's policy about exams is that she will only support kids in doing exams that they could have aced last year, so that there is no pressured preparation, only a dusting off and polishing off required. But again, she's only used this tactic for students wanting high school credit.

    I guess with a young child I'd portray it like I do the music festival -- "this is a chance to play for someone new with lots of experience and get some feedback from them about things you're doing well and things you can work on." That way she can see that there's nothing wrong with doing poorly on the sight-reading -- you already know it's something she struggles with and of course the examiner will notice that, but that's okay because the examiner is there to give input about things that she needs to keep working on.

    Sorry I don't have any more suggestions.

  10. thanks for this whole discussion. It was very timely for us. Haven't made a decision yet but it has really opened things up.


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