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Four Secrets to Becoming a Better Reader

by Bruce Siegel on September 16th, 2016

Now I know that music reading is the last thing you expect to see me write about. After all, my courses teach you to play by ear, through understanding chords and rhythmic patterns.

But I recently got an email from a subscriber with a problem I address constantly in my private teaching. And in thinking about how to help her, I realized I had the makings of a great change-of-pace post for this blog. So here goes.

Andrea Stramiello writes:

I am completely intrigued by your Play and Sing lessons. They have helped me to supplement what I’ve been trying to teach to myself for the past 3 years.  I had already taught myself some chords and music theory, and your course has helped me solidify that, plus has helped me know how to actually use the music theory I’ve learned.

I have had a great amount of trouble, however, with reading sheet music and trying to play at the same time. I have tried hundreds of times with even just some very easy sonatinas (Kuhlau Sonatina in C, and others), and I just can’t get up to tempo.  I keep stumbling over notes on the page, thinking, “Is that an F? or a C?  or an E?”  

Even though I do pretty well at quickly naming notes if I’m testing myself, I stumble when it comes to actually translating those notes to the keyboard.  What am I doing wrong?  

Andrea, I have four suggestions:

1. FIne-tune your note recognition.

You say you do “pretty well at quickly naming notes.” The thing is, to read music fluently, you need to do better than that. Imagine if, in reading this sentence, you only did pretty well in recognizing the letters. That would really hold you back, wouldn’t it?

You might try using flash cards each day. And don’t just name the notes, play them. Work towards an instantaneous response, and for that, it may help to start with just a few notes, and add on others one by one. This process can take a while, but it’s worth it.

You could also try using this free online drill. Like flash cards, the software enables you to start simply and increase your level of difficulty bit by bit. It even keeps score, so you can make a game of it. (The “average time” parameter is the most useful.)

I find that the combination of flash cards and software helps my students quite a bit.

2. Find sheet music at your level.

You say you have a hard time reading “even just some very easy sonatinas (Kuhlau Sonatina in C)”. Well, Kuhlau isn’t easy. If it were, you could do it.

You need to find music that actually works for you. And for that, I suggest beginning piano methods, of which there are countless. I’m fond of the Faber Piano Adventures series, myself.

If necessary, clap and count the music before you play it. Or take one hand at a time. Rather than get hung up on what you can’t do, find what you can. Then you can grow from there, without struggling.

Get the point? While these beginning pieces may not excite you musically, you may find yourself thrilled by how much they can help.

Once you get past the very simplest pieces:

3. Look for the chords.

Chords are to music what words are to language. And until you start recognizing the chords in the pieces you play, you’re like a reader of English who sees only letters instead of words. That would be a very awkward way to read, indeed.

As a student of my courses, you’re gaining an understanding of how chords look, feel, and are used. That can help you with your reading, especially if you take the time to study the chords in the music you play. You might actually write in the chord symbols above the notation.

Consider this: a novice reader might look at a given measure and see a couple of dozen notes, each of which has to be individually deciphered. I, on the other hand, might look and instantly see a single chord. Imagine what a difference that can make.

4. Make your practice fun by reading music you love.

The real key to reading music fluently is an obvious one: you need to do it a lot, and regularly. There’s simply no other way to learn, and it does take time.

I myself became a really good reader because I took such pleasure in doing it over a period of many years. I’ve always enjoyed playing unfamiliar repertoire by composers I love, and as I kid, I would sometimes go back to my earlier collections for the fun of sight-reading music that would once have been extremely challenging.

So make the learning process enjoyable by finding scores that are not too difficult, music that you’re likely to really enjoy. There are tons of pieces written at every level for piano, and in every style, so it shouldn’t be that hard.

It’s no mystery: when we take pleasure in doing something, we keep doing it. And then we can’t help but improve.

I hope you have found this useful, Andrea and others!

PS Since sight-reading requires a constant supply of fresh, unseen, scores, you might visit your local library and see what’s on their shelves. That way, you won’t spend a fortune for music you may not need to hang onto.

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