Is your piano student fooling you?

I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 years old.  My piano teacher, Helen Roll, used the Reading Keyboard Music method so I learned to read my pieces very quickly.  A few years later my family moved so I got a new piano teacher.  She was surprised how well I could read the music at such a young age (7) so she started giving me some more difficult, advanced pieces.

My new piano teacher would play through each song a couple of times before she sent me home to practice on my own.  This is a common thing for many piano teachers to do for their students.  When I got home, I would ask my Mom to play the songs for me a few more times.  I would listen to her and remember what my teacher had played and then I would rely on my ears and memory and stopped reading the music as I practiced.

After a few months of this, my teacher recognized I wasn’t reading my songs anymore. I was playing by ear and memory.  I’m SO glad she stopped playing my songs for me.  She even requested that my Mom not play the songs either while I was learning them.

My teacher would remind me that I could read all the notes, even ledger lines and bass clef, when I came to her as a new student and she reviewed with me how I had learned to play by reading the music, not playing by rote and memory.

Now, at 57 years old,  I’ve traveled the world and met a huge number of awesome people!  Many of them have taken piano lessons.  I love asking them about their piano experiences.  I started noticing some common factors among a large majority.  Of those people who had taken piano lessons for at least 5 years, most of them (about 65%) couldn’t read music and quit especially when it came time to learn bass clef.  They all know where middle C is on the piano and many of them could play Fur Elise and Heart and Soul…

As I talked more with them about their experiences while taking piano lessons, they would describe learning middle C and the name of the notes on the treble clef.  As their songs started getting harder, their teachers would play their songs for them.  They would listen, memorize and then pass off their songs.  When it came to learn the bass clef, they got overwhelmed and usually quit taking lessons all together.

ALL OF THEM REGRETTED QUITTING.  (That’s another blog post)

I even met a man who was a quarterfinalist in the Gina Bachauer Young Artists International Piano Competition who played piano brilliantly but struggled to read music.  Because of this (especially reading ledger lines and bass clef) it took him much longer to learn each of his pieces than it should have.

Sadly, I think the lack of focus by some piano teachers on actually reading music while learning to play the piano and also being fooled into thinking our students can read (because they use their ears and memory)  has hindered the amount of people who actually stick with lessons and become successful pianists, regardless of what they choose to do for a living.

The whole purpose of writing this post is to p0se some difficult questions to piano students:

Can your students really read the music sitting in front of them?

How do you know?

Do they have to count up the letter names of notes above/below the staff to figure out what piano key to press?

Do they write the names of those above/below notes in their music because they don’t know how to read where they actually are?

Are they reading the treble clef notes but guessing the bass clef notes?


To piano students:

How did you answer the above questions?

If you can’t actually read music, you should know it’s taking you a lot more time to learn your pieces. Hours more…

Are you willing to let your piano teacher know your secret?  That you can’t really read the music very well.

I can tell you if you are thinking letter names (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) while you are playing your songs that you aren’t really reading.  You’re taking extra steps while you’re learning your songs.

If you struggle with actually reading music, stay tuned for the next blog post.  There is hope.  Truly.