Help for Suzuki-method pupils to learn to read music

January 10, 2018, 9:04 AM · I was wondering whether anyone has any advice for me on the following topic: how to help a student who has learnt violin using the Suzuki method to read music? Some of these students play quite well up to a point, but I have found it difficult to help them to progress to a higher level and they seem to have difficulty in understanding key signatures, and tones and semitones.
I read somewhere - I think possibly on this site - that Suzuki pupils usually learn to read quite easily! Please would someone tell me how - I'd be incredibly grateful. Thanks and Best Wishes, Ann Hubble London, UK

Replies (29)

January 10, 2018, 9:35 AM · "I read somewhere - I think possibly on this site - that Suzuki pupils usually learn to read quite easily!"

I think the above depends on the student.

However in my experience, students that come to me without having had a focus on reading skills can be very problematic. They certainly learn to read more slowly, and it can be a long and frustrating process for both. The visual aspect of learning has been ignored, and so they find it difficult to track the music in a smooth manner. This is why I have beginners read from day 1 (actual notes, not letters). They need to learn to scan. Not only scan smoothly left to right, but across rests, line breaks, and pages. Students whose brains are not accustomed to relying on visual cues tend to memorize easily, but they memorize mistakes just as easily. Lessons are often exhausting affairs for both student and teacher because so many rhythms and notes are incorrect...and perfectly memorized. These students tend to fake it in the orchestra. Often they are playing above their level--rote-learning difficult pieces over a long time period. This tends to impress listeners at first hearing, and the student continues a trajectory of rote learning without a good foundation. I'm not describing any particular students but rather a pattern I've seen plenty as a teacher.

So I think the best answer to teaching them how to read is to assign them many short pieces with varying challenges. Don't have them memorize anything--they don't have a problem with that. Change it up every week. Do lots of reading in lessons.

As much as most teachers (and students) hate it, you have to teach them all that stuff like keys and intervals. It's an investment that has to be made if they are to be able to read at a high level. This often stops them in youth orchestras where professional or quasi-pro music is used: when repertoire in the later 19th century is used, they can't read it because they can judge intervals. When given a jump from F Double-# to a B-flat, they can't process it. Intervals, keys, and scales have to drilled in at every lesson.
Or it simply becomes someone else's problem.

Edited: January 10, 2018, 11:09 AM · I think the age of your students is relevant. For the last 30 years I taught (until about 10 years ago) I used the Suzuki books, but I was not a "Suzuki teacher,"

EDIT: I should also add that my rule was to not take any student less than 6 years old, a rule I broke twice Once it was a mistake for a miniature 5-year old cello student. The other time was for a 5-year old violin student whom I had know since birth (well from age 1 month, when she was carried by her mother when we selected a rental cello for her oldest brother). She had been in love with the violin and VSOs from age 1 or 2 and I decided not to put her off any longer - it worked out OK.

I always had the students play with the music on the stand in front of them. That's the way I was taught (in the US) starting in 1939. That's the way I taught for the 10 (or so) years before I started to use the Suzuki books too. If my students were not reading music they were faking it and fooling me, and no doubt, which for at least some period of time, they were.

High school students who joined the community orchestra I played in had all been taught in the local Suzuki school until they moved on to more "conventional" pedagogues and they were outstanding sight readers.

I cannot remember how I learned to read music, but I know that by the time I was 9 and accepted into the kid program at the Manhattan School of Music I had confidence in my sight-reading ability - probably more confidence than was warranted.

January 10, 2018, 9:55 AM · The suzuki method, invented by Suzuki Shinichi, a Japanese educator, used to train young kids younger than seven or eight, as Japanese kids usually start musical training at a tender age of three, the emphasis of suzuki method is on playing by ear and sing the notes (both fixed do) before playing, as this training moving forward, kids who are at a sensitive age are likely to develop absolute ear (perfect pitch in other words), hence playing without score is primary while sight reading will be secondary, but I do not think this method is suitable for older learners, compared with suzuki method, maybe traditional method will be more appropriate.
January 10, 2018, 10:20 AM · Depends on the age of the student, as well as individual ability. I would not recommend teaching music reading until the student is at least 6 or 7 years old for intellectual reasons.
January 10, 2018, 1:30 PM · You didn't specify what level your students are playing/reading at, but what I do to teach music reading is start with simple note recognition, usually open strings first, then add the 1st position A/D/G major notes. I have a lap white board that students love writing on and we write notes and discuss the logic of notes moving alphabetically and how that relates to fingerboard geography (I also use some basic note flashcards). Once they have grasped this we can move on to other keys, etc,, usually starting with one octave scales. "Fiddle Time Scales" has the basic major/minor 1st position scales, plus a piece or two in each key and/or Barbara Barber's Solos for Young Violinists book 1 has a series of easyish folk songs preceded by a scale in the key of the piece which can also be helpful. For students with a basic understanding of note reading, but who are slow to read, I like the series "Teaching Technique with Beautiful Music" by Applebaum, the books have short melodic pieces, but the tunes are usually unfamiliar to students, making playing by ear more difficult. It moves pretty freely among the most common keys, so the student has to be paying attention in order to play correctly.
This is all for students up through about Suzuki book 3, I've never had a student past that level unable to read well, so I'm not sure what I'd try yet.
Edited: January 10, 2018, 2:44 PM · The will to read has to be there. Anyone can learn to read from Suzuki if they're incorporating it in as part of each consecutive piece. But if they're not TRYING to learn to read, then they won't learn to read.

In many cases, students will do the easiest thing and use their ears instead of their eyes. In these cases, I find Samuel Applebaum's "string builder" books to be a nice way of forcing students to read even if the will isn't there. Part of the reason for this is that there are so many different "songs" in the book that it's almost impossible to memorize them all. Not to mention they're just not all that melodic, which also makes memorization difficult. I like his logical approach to note reading (he starts with open strings first).
So I use "string builder" to force basic reading, and then in conjunction with that I teach the C Major Scale. Suzuki can be a little crappy for note-reading skills because it starts in A Major which has 3 sharps, so I think it makes way more sense to introduce the student to the "white keys" (naturals) that occur on the violin, so that they could find any natural note on the violin if asked. This can be accomplished with a 2-octave C-Major scale. Then introduce G major, which has 1 sharp, then D major which has 2, and etc.... In this way we can explain sharps based on the effect they have on naturals, rather than just saying "this is F sharp, play it here." Instead, I would say "F natural goes here, as we learned in the C major scale, but if you look closely there is an F SHARP in this song, so we have to move that up a half-step."

Make sure that you make them count "1, 2, 3, 4" verbally as they're playing the simple stuff in String Builder #1.

This advice is for students below Suzuki book 3.

Edited: January 10, 2018, 5:27 PM · There is a series of books called "I Can Read Music." They're very good. After your violin students get to a certain point, you just need to spend a little of each lesson on sight reading. Don't gasp ... piano teachers do this all the time. Study books are great for this. Pianists place a very high premium on reading because, obviously, sight reading on the piano means more than one note -- indeed, more than one clef -- at a time. I had a piano student who had learned to play to a reasonable level, but it never occurred to him how to recognize an octave by noting that one note is between staff lines and the other note has the staff line going through it. So even though double-stop sight-reading on the violin is not usually emphasized, interval recognition in passage playing is an absolutely essential sight-reading skill.
Edited: January 10, 2018, 5:52 PM · The Suzuki Method did not include music literacy materials because in Japan, all students have that covered as part of their curriculum in elementary school (and elementary school teachers are required to have piano proficiency).

The adaptation of the method to other countries/cultures has required the addition of supporting material. In the US, music education at the elementary level varies in quality, with schools that have excellent K-3 music appreciation with ensembles from grade 4 onwards, and those that have absolutely nothing until grade 6 or later.

I started playing at age 6 (in Orange County, California, USA) in a large Suzuki program, and in addition to a private lesson and a group class, I also attended a music fundamentals course with a workbook aligned specifically with my Book 1 repertoire that focused on rhythm reading and note reading. I had to read the music practically from day one. My public school had a weekly music appreciation class where we learned basic concepts like melody, harmony, and rhythm through singing, percussion, movement, etc. I was very fortunate (privileged), and am incredibly grateful to have had these opportunities growing up.

As Ella mentions, we often times hold off on symbol recognition like note-reading until a child is cognitively ready, around the Kindergarten/1st Grade threshold. My wife, who teaches kids starting at age 3, often has the younger ones take piano lessons as well to give them a good foundation in reading!

Edited: January 10, 2018, 7:19 PM · It’s so hard what to suggest because we do not know the age group your teaching. However if they are ear players based on the Suzuki method and still cannot read music I’m going to say they are old enough to read period /should have been taught how to read music by now based on even the Suzuki method. But my response is still a stab in the dark based on that assumption!

I agree with Erik to start with scales, in particular C major as he suggested and go from there. I still remember when I was wee how shocked (and I was taught to read music and learned with Suzuki books) that f natural didn’t fall comfortably in the first position I had been working on for so long!

I’m in Canada but the RCM Technique and Etudes Preparatory 1-4 is where I would start with anyone at any level to sight read. It will feel like a huge step back for many/all players but they will jump ahead quickly! There is also a 5-8. Also to start instead of counting out note beats I would suggest having a student say notes by name while practicing scales and paying attention to the scale written infront of them:)

January 10, 2018, 8:00 PM · @Scott: I recognize myself in the flaws you mention from some students. I have very, very good ear memory and usually I can whistle (or play at my level) any tune I listen just once. That is frustrating my teacher very much because I don't follow the sheet and it is very difficult to correct my engraved mistakes.
To force me to follow the sheet, he makes changes on it by pencil. Changes a bowing, adds a dynamic or the note length. That's the only way he can tell when I am following the paper or I am faking it.
I hate this laziness of mine but it is a habit difficult to kick. Do you have any advice or exercise routine or book that would help an adult beginner in that regard? Would it be the same as for a kid?
January 10, 2018, 8:16 PM · I can play the viola just fine and I can read alto clef. But I cannot SING in alto clef! How about that?
January 10, 2018, 8:18 PM · When I was a Suzuki student, initially reading was taught as part of the group lessons, using flashcards and the like. Then my teacher assigned sight-reading for every practice session, and we did sight-reading in lessons. We used Doflein for the sight-reading exercises.

Carlos, playing by ear is like a game of telephone -- it has all the inaccuracies of something that is second-hand. You are committing the error of inattentive practice, fundamentally.

January 10, 2018, 8:36 PM · I agree, Lydia. That's why I want to correct that mistake.
Edited: January 10, 2018, 9:07 PM · @Carlos.....I think being able to whistle/play a basic tune by ear isn’t something to correct without hearing you play. You probably have a great ear for pitch.

My comment doesn’t undetermine the importance of being able to read sheet music though.

Being musical and flexible can/is a combination of least I think...

January 11, 2018, 12:13 AM · I agree completely. Actually from Lydia's comment I am going to start using flashcards.
I have used for years ANKI to learn languages so I am going to prepare music phrases taken from etudes and exercises and I will prepare a Music-Reading Deck. I think that will help me.
Edited: January 11, 2018, 3:21 AM · Im a pianist, but this is how my girl learned to read music. She started with Suzuki at the age of 2 and after having turned 4 years and in the middle of book 1 the teacher introduced the book I can read music, which has allready been mentioned and told me to teach her to read music with it. About 3 months before that I had started to teach her the notenames and pitches, which she picked up quite easily. So prior to actual noteeeading she had a good pitch memory, which made the note reading so so much easier.

First we did about 4 months only note pitch reading as she couldnt grasp the idea of different types of notes meaning different lenght notes let alone count rythmn with numbers due to her young age. And after that I could introduce the different notetypes. So we did book 1 I can read music and started book 2 but at this point she is soon turning 5 I find it easier to just write her a note line every day for her to read and play than follow the book as she is reading the similar music she now plays which is the end of book 1.

So what did I learn from this and maybe usefull for others?

The first thing is that the book called I can read music is very very good.

Secondly in suzuki the parent is and has to be active, the teacher just says what has to happen and the parent has to make it happen in home practise. So the suzukiparent is used to the idea that she or he has to be active. And if she or he is not, there is a big problem with Suzuki method.

And thirdly I taught the pitch names first and she has a good pitch memory and it was probably the most helping thing as we do use pitch names and not finger names in the playing.

I think a lot of reading problems come from the fact that many teachers use fingernumbers and not note names in teaching children, when there is absolutely no reason for not to use the notenames or with the very very young some similas sounding animal name etc for the note.

Children learn to remember fingernumbers and then they have to unleard them when they learn to read music and it takes trouble which could have been avoided had the fingernumbers not been so widely used. I learned piano with the fingernumbers and what a pain the learning to read music was.

So it is not like every suzukichild cannot read music even though they dont read the music they play, it is how the teacher and the parent value reading and as both her teacher and me as a parent value notereading, it is easily doable. With a bit older children it is probably still easier as they can count and clap and count and their brains are more developed than a 4 year olds are. The point is that onSuzuki the notereding and the playing are 2 different paths but there is no reson why they souldnt be both done,

January 11, 2018, 1:50 AM · Erik is right, the desire must be there. Some students, especially if they end up drifting away from classical music early on, or don't get a lot of chances to play in groups seem to have a sort of anti-notation complex about them, where they stubbornly refuse to learn to read music. I have met some musicians ( mostly rock guitarists ) who even think that being able to read notation stifles creativity ( I wish I were exaggerating )

Once you convince them that there is something in it for them, then they just really need to practice reading. Explain the basic mechanics of the clef, key signatures, rhythms, and other markings, and have them sight read something easy on a daily basis. You could even throw in sight singing exercises as well.

January 11, 2018, 2:05 AM · There are many supplementary note/sight reading materials designed for (and not only) Suzuki students

Note reading and sightreading bibliography

Outstanding work for the young students is

My First Note-Reading Book by Kerstin Wartberg

worth of mention are also works by William Starr, Katharina Apostolidis and Joanne Martin.

Adventures in Music Reading by Starr
Das magische Notenbuch by Katharina Apostolidis
I Can Read Music, Volume 1 by Joanne Martin

Even Shinichi Suzuki created a Note Reading Book
Note Reading for Violin

January 11, 2018, 3:14 AM · I was one of those Suzuki students who learned (back in the 80's) mostly by ear. I was in Suzuki book 4 (age 9 or 10) before I started to learn to read music, and a big part of my violin teacher's approach was to send me to piano lessons. This approach did not limit me in terms of solo pieces, but it does make it harder for me to play in ensembles. When I do occasionally play in an orchestra, the first thing I do is find recordings. Sight reading invokes terror in me to this day.

My kids are Suzuki students now. Their teachers all started them sight reading at a younger age using the "I Can Read Music" series and, for my violinist, Doflein. This seems to be working well for them. So, as others have mentioned, I think the key is to supplement the Suzuki approach with a generous and consistent dose of sight reading, to get the best of both worlds.

January 11, 2018, 2:10 PM · "Do you have any advice or exercise routine or book that would help an adult beginner in that regard? Would it be the same as for a kid?"

In order to learn to read well, I guess I'd just suggest doing lots of reading, and perhaps music that doesn't necessarily make sense by ear. Music with lots of harmonic and rhythmic changes that's not predictable.

It took me a long time to become a respectable reader. Much of reading is very much like reading a language: one needs to build a mental library of patterns. That's the reason behind scales and arpeggios, isn't it? Our most basic patterns. Or other patterns like broken thirds.

January 11, 2018, 3:07 PM · One of the things that I find really helps sightreading (and by extension, music reading in general) is working on reading rhythms away from the instrument - there's lots of different rhythm training books that you can clap through. Being able to subconsciously group notes into beats and subdivisions frees up a lot of mental space for looking at pitches, and having a rhythmic grid in place when looking at a piece can remove a lot of the "but how do I know how it goes" that paralyzes people used to learning by ear.
January 11, 2018, 7:21 PM · In an ideal world violinists would learn to play by music and by ear at the same time. Outside of classical music playing by ear is indispensable and too many trained violinists can't do it too well which is a shame. Teachers should certainly not discourage the skill if it is there. Neither should it be a one or other kind of thing - the best players can both read and play by ear. Jazz horn players in general don't seem to have this problem of being predominantly an ear player or reader - it seems to be another one of those violinist things!
January 11, 2018, 8:18 PM · @Irene: What you say is very true. Knowing my reading weakness, my teacher makes me do this before I am allowed to put the bow on the strings:
First, do the rythm without pitch of the whole passage to practice. The beat, the tempo, and the note lenght.
Pa-pa-papapa-paaaa-paaaa Like that.

Once I do that, I have to sing it, solfege style: Do-do-remifasi-laaaa-laaaa
Then and only then, I can start playing it.

Regarding that, I agree that that the habit of Suzuki of fingernumbering each note is contraproductive to learning to read. It makes the brain think "3rd finger on the third", instead of "Re" and pitching in your head.

Edited: January 12, 2018, 12:14 PM · A couple of practical points:

When reading text, our eyes follow along the tops of the lower case letters, while "catching" the stems and tails; (test this by covering the lower half of the letters - one can still undestand most of the text.)

On musical staves, our eyes must zigzag up and down and our poor brains must sort out the great variety of stems and beams, not to mention the often non-proprtional spacing of rythms.

So? Scores for young children must be on a scale adapted to young eyes: Clear staff lines, bold noteheads, close enough together to facliltate the flow of eye movemnts; (not always the case in computer-set publcations).

January 12, 2018, 10:31 PM · "Knowing my reading weakness, my teacher makes me do this before I am allowed to put the bow on the strings:
First, do the rythm without pitch of the whole passage to practice. The beat, the tempo, and the note lenght.
Pa-pa-papapa-paaaa-paaaa Like that.
Once I do that, I have to sing it, solfege style: Do-do-remifasi-laaaa-laaaa
Then and only then, I can start playing it."

To progress to better sight-reading, you need to start to combine the two, three, or more parts. I don't mean to contradict your teacher's separation of rhythm and pitch reading -- that's exactly the approach taken by some beginner's reading books, including "I can read music". The point there is to focus your attention on one aspect at a time to make it easier for you. But to be more fluent in sight-reading, you need to get ahead of it a bit, at least grasp the common rhythms, and then add the pitch together with it. (And the other parts would be to put what you read in your mind, and then in action on the instrument. It can get more complicated when you add bow division, position, articulation, and other options to the mix.)

As others suggest, you get better at sight-reading by doing it - reading more music. Material designed to be used for sight reading is likely to be the best, but anything new can be used, even a book of studies. There you'll find different patterns and variations, but also stuff not really worth memorizing.

I don't think that the point should be to read the music at all times. It's pointless if you have it memorized, and there's value and freedom in memorization. But you should be able to read to get new music in the first place, and still read the music at times to correct any memory faults.

FWIW, I'll mention a couple of expectations from RCM. All repertoire is expected to be played from memory. Even for pianists who typically read more. The exception is for studies. There's also a specific sight-reading component of the performance examination -- there you get an opportunity to study, literally read, the music for a bit before you play it. Sight-reading isn't all mechanical and instantaneous -- if you're able to get anything out of the pre-reading, it'll be from observing and recognizing patterns and applying that as you play.

January 13, 2018, 2:52 AM · If I may return to eye movements, in relation to note patterns and rythm,
for a known piece, or in an ensemble, our eyes must be able to scan the staves in tempo!

I ask my students to follow my playing, or a recording,
- with a finger on the page (close to the score);
- with the bow tip on the page (further from the score, so narrower eye movements..);
- with eyes only, which I observe closely.

Then the same protocol but tapping each measure, or each beat, rather than than a smooth scanning motion.

Another detail: if my score-writer makes the internal barlines line up vertically, I shift them slightly to avoid skipping a line when paasages have a similar appearance.

January 13, 2018, 8:20 AM · I use teaching aids along with a supplemental book depending on their age. If it's a younger child, I start with a poster board, blank staff drawn on the board, 3 sets of alphabet refrigerator magnets A-G, and a cut out foam treble clef (know as "Mr. Cat" who sits on a fence with his belly button on the G).

That's how I start...

January 16, 2018, 10:45 AM · Like anything, it takes practice. So a student should have some kind of reading assignment with every lesson. Another thing that helps is to play in orchestra, where you simply have to jump in and read! My students who play in orchestra - at school or in a youth orchestra - tend to progress greatly in their reading, just from that experience.
Edited: January 16, 2018, 10:49 AM · P.S. Anyone who is old enough to read words can also get started, reading music. For quite a lot of children, that's about age four. You need developmentally appropriate material (like Music Mind Games and I Can Read Music) but you can get started.

BTW when learning to read, one needs to start with "easy" music to play - you shouldn't be learning to read with repertoire that is at the edge of your abilities.

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