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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Johnny Can't Read

In the past Suzuki teachers have been so excited about the possibilities revealed by the Suzuki Method and its emphasis on aural learning, that we have many times failed to adequately address the issue of reading. I have seen the results of this in university summer strings camps and other youth orchestra programs. Students do not read as well in many cases as they might if raised in a more "traditional" fashion.

As a teacher I have also learned that there are several windows of opportunity for learning good reading skills that might get lost or become harder to learn if left until a later time to learn. Too often I have worked with a student that comes from another teacher who does not emphasize good reading skills in the student's learning program, and I have had to monitor the student's learning to read very closely to be sure that the student is actually reading and not instantly playing by ear.


For these reasons, I introduce reading very early. There are some teachers who use the rule of 5 to determine when a student is "reading ready," as they call it. This rule basically states that if a child's Suzuki book level and school grade level add up to 5, then it's time to introduce reading. That means a child in first grade in book 4 should be learning to read, or a child in 2nd grade in book 3.

I think that when a student is in book 3 or book 4, that it is too late to introduce the reading concept. I also find it to be a really, really difficult burden to place on the home practicing parent's shoulders to learn a new piece in these later books without the student being able to read. I find that what happens in these cases is that the student learns the new piece by listening alone, which just reinforces the listening skill and does nothing to improve the reading skill. Students just continue on this path of learning to play everything by ear and never quite get off the playing-by-ear carousel. I cannot even play along with some of these exceptional "listening" (non-reading) students because they almost "hear" what I'm going to play when my finger goes down. I have one particular student that I have play something for me every week that can only be played by reading. There are no recordings of it, and I do not play the piece for the student. Gradually this student has progressed to the point that his reading is much more on par with his ability to play by ear.

I want my students to play with good reading skills and not by listening alone. Good listening skills and the ability to play by ear are additional technical skills in the overall arsenal of good technical musical skills, but one skill should not be given precedence over all the others. Just as I work to improve all possible learning styles in my students, I also strive to teach the student to be well-rounded in all technical skills required to be a good musician.

Listening skills are very important, but I cannot do my job as a professional symphony and chamber musician by learning my repertoire by ear alone. For example, I just received a list of the repertoire that I am to have prepared in the next 10 days, which includes a full staged opera, several opera suites, several symphonies, Rosenkavalier Waltzes (R. Strauss), and the Trout Quintet (Schubert). That's an example of the type of literature I must know in the next 10 days ON THE VIOLIN. I must also be prepared to serve as a pianist for vocal master classes, vocal chamber music, and opera choral rehearsals. The good news is that I will be doing all of this fun stuff in Rome, Italy!. The other good news is that I have excellent reading skills. How I got those skills is a topic for another time, although there is an article that I wrote about it for the Journal of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I forget what year the SAA published the article; maybe it was a decade ago.

I have fortunately played just about everything on the repertoire list before, sometimes several times, but the task would have been daunting if I had had to rely on learning my repertoire by listening to a recording alone. Instead, I listen and read at the same time. The listening helps me to determine what phrasing, bowings, and fingerings I might use. I check my rhythm and musical expression, and I enjoy playing with recordings on occasion. Listening also helps me to memorize my repertoire very quickly too. I still use my reading skill at the same time, as I ferret out the composer's written details in the music and study the score to determine how my part fits within the entire musical whole of the composition.

So I answer the question about when to teach reading: at the end of book 1 or beginning of book 2, no matter the age of the child. Now, I do adjust the materials I use to teach reading depending on the child's age. Some students just have a hard time with reading in general. I thought I read somewhere that our eye muscles are not fully developed until age 9, so that could explain it. I have no idea where I read this idea, but in practice I have found it to be true in some cases.

 fermata signs, staccato marks, up-up bowing marks, slurs, sharp signs) and to discuss the form of various songs. Even little children are able to compare two different parts of a song and tell me whether the music on the page looks the same between the two parts or different.

Many times we save the reading activities for group classes. The kids enjoy doing reading games. We have card games we use and flashcards, and each child has a little music paper notebook for practice in drawing various notes and musical symbols or clefs.

Oh, in case anyone is interested, my personal opinion is that learning to read is part of learning music theory. I also think that proficiency in understanding music theory is a very important skill to master as well. And, I ask my students to learn both treble and bass clefs. In some cases, my students also learn alto clef so that they can experiment with the viola.

I welcome other teacher's and parent's comments on this topic. How has the reading issue worked in your particular situation?

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