Developing Musical Literacy

It is common to confuse the ability to decipher music with the ability to make music. Humans have been making music for millions of years. The Western form of musical notation has only been around for about four centuries! Classical musicians and traditional teachers often believe that students should only play music that they are able to read. The implication is that it is cheating to play by ear, or by rote- indeed one popular type of music book, in which the score is not fully notated, is called a Fake Book. However, when we consider that the majority of modern performers, who earn money playing music, do so from either minimal musical notation, or none at all, this attitude seems misplaced, at best. It is actually common for music teachers to chastise students for playing by ear. Indeed, my own teachers shamed me into never exercising my ear. I started out with a pretty decent ear, and played a lot without music when I was 4-6 years old. After the first few years of lessons, I never used my ear, and my confidence in it became non-existent. Many years later, I decided to drop out of music (I became a Geologist!) because I thought that my ear wasnt good enough. Sixteen years later, I started to teach music again. This time, I was a lot more playful, and I rediscovered the ear I left behind at six or seven years old! What could be more basic to music then the ability to use ones ear to the fullest extent possible?

When working with students who have learning differences, it is even more important to acknowledge that the ability to read music should not be confused with the ability to make music. Our modern system of musical notation works well for about eighty percent of the population. Music reading for the remaining twenty percent (those with learning differences) varies from difficult to impossible. When we insist that these students must read all the notes that they play, we put a wall between them and the music. How unreasonable; how unfair! One of my most talented students was also extremely dyslexic. She came to study with me when she was 8 years old. Although she had never been exposed to classical music, she was already composing (by playing, not notating) perfect pieces in the classical form. Many of her pieces could have doubled for teaching pieces by Mozart or Haydn. I spent most of her lessons notating her music. She was extremely motivated to learn to read music (especially so that she could write music!), and, over the course of four years made slow progress toward her goal. Toward the end of her studies with me (she eventually moved away), we published a book of her music. She was featured on a local news program, and she attended a fine arts middle school in music. How unfortunate would it have been had she gone to a traditional teacher, who insisted that she play only music that she could read? I am sure that she would have quit, and quite possibly carried around the belief that she could not make music. The last time I heard from her, she was planning a career in music!

Students without learning differences are developmentally ready to read music over a wide range of ages (5-14). When they are forced to read music before they are ready, the same wall is erected between them and the music, with the same disastrous outcome. My observation of this process has lead me to create a different method of teaching piano to beginning students. I almost always present the musical pattern with notation. In the group lessons, I usually write it on a large board, and we read the pattern out loud a few times. After this, we finger it together. Students who are ready to read music have the opportunity to think though the pattern and figure out the fingering. Those who are not ready just copy the fingering pattern (learning by rote). None of them notice the difference in the learning process. They naturally come to the reading as they are ready. Some of them complete the entire year without really reading, and others are reading from the first lesson. All are satisfied because they are all able to make rich music on the piano, and no one is grading them on the speed at which their reading ability progresses.

This process continues into their semi-private lessons. Again, some of these students are reading all of their music from the first lesson, while others are barely reading after 2-3 years. The biggest motivation for reading is that it enables students to decipher new sections of pieces on their own. There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction when students achieve the ability to learn new music independently. However, this process cannot be rushed. The teacher must be sensitive to the students musical developmental stage. It is very easy to make a mistake, and push music reading on a child who is not ready. This can have disastrous results. Before they are ready, all students are like those of us with learning differences- music reading is equally impossible! When a student is ready, music reading will develop in joy, without trauma.

I would like to make one more observation. Many adults think that, if they cannot sight read music fluently, they are not able to read music at all. Sight reading is the ability to play unfamiliar music accurately from a score, having never heard or seen the music before hand. This is a high level skill. All of us sight read at a much lower level then our playing level. Indeed, beginners cannot sight read, since there is no level below the level at which they play. Most adult students are interested in learning music that is familiar, and this is probably true for most children, as well. I believe that the choice to push sight reading should be carefully considered. I get great pleasure from my ability to sight read, and I regularly play through new music with friends. I have taught students, who have gone on to professional accompaniment careers, in which sight reading was a required skill. However, learning to sight read well is a major undertaking, and I realize that many of my students do not have interest in this area. Insisting on developing sight reading skills, no matter what the interest of the student, builds that same wall up between the student and the music.

All students can use their ear, and their ability to learn by rote, to make wonderful and fulfilling music. Let us celebrate their many accomplishments, as we guide them to attain their own, personal goals with music!