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The Holy Grail of Piano Teaching

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The Holy Grail of Piano Teaching

Post by jytte on Mon Oct 18, 2010 11:10 am

I came across this little article on the The Piano Pedagogy Page
and thought others might find it interesting as well:
(edited brief)

The Holy Grail of Piano Teaching

I suppose itís about time I said something about sight-reading.
When I was studying for my teaching certificate for the Texas public schools, I came across a fascinating article from the Texas Education Agency. It turns out that language arts teachers have much the same problem as music teachers Ė how to teach students to read fluently.

My favorite paragraph is worth restating here in full:
ďFluency develops as a result of many opportunities to practice reading with a high degree of success. Therefore, your students should practice rereading aloud texts that are reasonably easy for them Ė that is, texts containing mostly words that they know or can decode easily. In other words, the texts should be at the studentsí independent reading level.Ē

What does this mean for music? I started thinking about all the things Iíve been doing wrong. Iíll list them here in the hopes that other teachers can avoid my mistakes.

1) I didnít understand the value of rereading. I used to treat all reading practice as ďplaying an unfamiliar piece of music at first sight.Ē Granted, thatís a useful skill and an admirable goal, but itís horribly frustrating for students who have difficulty reading. Itís like starting with four octave scales, hands together, in 16th notes at mm=144. We donít develop technique that way, and we shouldnít develop reading that way.

2) I overestimated the difficulty level of appropriate reading material. Language arts guidelines (based on research) say that fluency is built when a student can read a passage at a 95% success rate; in other words, when they can easily recognize 19 out of every 20 words. If the material is more difficult than that, the student is apt to become frustrated and gain nothing from the exercise. This makes sense Ė would you actually read this blog if you had to look up every 10th word in a dictionary? Of course not! And in music, itís not just a string of words, itís pitch, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, and the technique required to pull it off! Remember, asking a student to sight-read something near the level of their performance repertoire would be like me asking you to read the first page of the 1st Boulez sonata (see pic below). (Aw, come on, itís only 14 measures, and the tempo is nice and slow!)

And a final thought Ė if something isnít worth rereading, itís probably not worth reading in the first place. Itís important to choose high-quality music. I understand the value of exercises and use them in my teaching Ė flash cards, note spellers, technique drills and rhythmic reading activities, etc. Ė but when the time comes to practice actual reading, pick something thatís interesting and exciting. Last year, I started having my students read through Christopher Nortonís American Popular Piano series. The pieces are catchy and clever, and they have wonderful duet parts for the teacher. And seriously, if you make your students read music they donít really like, then Iím going to come to your house and make you read the 1st Boulez Sonata.

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