Teaching the ear-learner to read music

July 14, 2018, 3:51 PM · My current student has an almost uncanny ability to hear a piece of music and then play it. At the same time, put a page of sheet music in front of him and he stumbles. For a while I attributed this to simply being a poor sight-reader (I'm not a gifted sigh-reader myself but I can and do.)

I've discovered that he has begun to go to Youtube to find pieces that we're working on so he can ear-learn them as opposed to reading the music.

The problem is that the Youtube performances have more than a bit of rubato, missed notes, shortened or extended slurs, et cetera. When I point out that he isn't playing the piece correctly I get the "Deer in the Headlights" look with a background of some defiance.

So, how to get him to focus on and read the printed music?

Replies (22)

July 14, 2018, 4:30 PM · One word: solfeggio!
Edited: July 14, 2018, 4:35 PM · I explain to students that being a complete musician requires both skills. My longtime mentor had a great question that he asked people who copied other people's performances instead of coming up with their own interpretations based on their reading of and personal insight/knowledge of the score:

"Would you rather be a second-rate version of someone else, or a first-rate version of yourself?"

Does your student like movie music? Might want to mention the kind of experience that studio musicians have! Since it's entirely focused on rapid sight-reading and delivery of as polished a performance in a short time.

I've had the opposite problem at times...I've been trying to encourage string students to play for Modern Dance classes, where all the material is improvised. For many players, it's a "learn by doing" experience but just getting them to show up with an instrument is like pulling teeth. :P

Edited: July 14, 2018, 5:41 PM · It's not uncommon for piano teachers to spend some precious lesson time having the student actually sight-reading. When I had piano lessons, this happened very frequently. The teacher would simply take the book of Clementi Sonatinas (or whatever) and turn to one of the other ones and say, "Okay, go."

For violin students, this is one of the benefits of the "new-study-every-week" approach. Find a book of easy ones (look for editions by Charles Levenson) and assign three or four! The student will probably find it easier to just learn them by reading than trying to find them on youtube.

July 14, 2018, 7:16 PM · Sight reading is one of the main goals I want to learn so one of the ways I'm going to try to learn is to buy some of the books and tools from ABRSM and RCM that prepare people for the sight reading segment of their exams. I wish I was as gifted as the OP's student in aural skills, but I'm working on that as well!

PS - Sorry for my ignorance, but I've seen the term "solfeggio" but not sure what that is? What is that? (I'm a totally beginner student!)

July 14, 2018, 8:05 PM · I think transcription (even at simple levels) is fantastic both for the ear player who has trouble reading and the reader who has trouble playing by ear. For the ear player it's like reverse engineering reading and visa-versa. For the violinist I think a knowledge of intervals is essential. Intervals are essential for ear playing and reading. Not just the sounds of the interval but how that feels as a shape in the fingers. Reading and playing by ear have common grounds. If a musician can do both then they are in a more powerful position than the musician who can only do one.
Edited: July 15, 2018, 8:53 AM · Solfege is the do-re-mi system of naming notes.

Maybe it's time to start assigning material that can't be found performed online. An older method from IMSLP, perhaps.

July 14, 2018, 9:00 PM · https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solf%C3%A8ge

I never did solfege as a child but sight-reading is one of my very best skills because of piano studies.

Edited: July 15, 2018, 10:58 AM · Get a book of beginner duets and play together sight reading (his part will be different than yours). Do not let him take the book back and look up the pieces ahead of the next lesson. Play a different piece at each lesson. This way he won't know how it sounds until he plays a piece and will not be playing the same thing twice either. You don't have to play at tempo. It might be ugly at first, but will eventually improve if he puts some effort into it.

Edit: alternatively you could assign studies that he is less likely to find online (avoid the most popular ones). Somehow he'll have to figure out the notes.

Edited: July 15, 2018, 10:52 AM · What about assigning him the second violin part to a Mozart or Haydn quartet? It's harder to figure out what those sound like online.
July 15, 2018, 1:38 PM · Sight reading is a learned skill, and playing violin, especially a new piece which is level-appropriate or challenging, is hard enough without adding the requirement of that new skill. It can be developed independently to the point where it becomes more fluid and more usable for new works, but for the beginner who is not inclined towards it, and is actively avoiding it, I'd suggest starting with a specific program geared towards learning reading (early ones even separate pitch from rhythm) and having the student do them during the lesson. Of course the point wouldn't be to work on those easy pieces, but to recognize the music and to be able to play it while reading it, informing and developing those skills.

FWIW, the RCM has a sight-reading component in the examinations (grade 3 and up), which the teacher will prepare you towards. You are expected to be able to sight-read material nominally 2 levels below your performance level. This of course is just a rough guideline -- material would be specifically chosen and not be stuff you might have played two years ago. Moreover, that's the target for these tests -- the weak reader should start with even simpler material.

Edited: July 15, 2018, 3:20 PM · Seems the most important part wasn't adressed here yet.

Someone has to learn to read music first before trying to play at the same time.

Teach him to read the pitches fluently. Then the rhythm. Use easy examples without pitch. Let him clap the rhythm and count the times at the same time.
After this, he may take the violin.

Btw. Does he know the notes and their names on the instrument? This could be another learn first step!

Someone once asked me: how can you play the guitar and sing something absolute different at the same time, with straight tempo on the instrument and rubato in the singing?
I thought about it. The answer was simple. Because I can do both parts equally, so I can put them together.

A player who is used to play by ear only can never learn reading while learning a piece simultaneously. He hast to master the reading part first before he can build a connection between playing and reading.

To make my point clear: This is a completely different situation compared to a beginner who learns both skills at the same time.
Ear players often have also a kind of aversion against notes that they have to get over.

July 15, 2018, 3:16 PM · Gene, et al.,

"Would you rather be a second-rate version of someone else, or a first-rate version of yourself?" I think that is the key. He wants to be a success at everything and doesn't understand that simply copying a performance limits him to only being as good as those he listens to. I'm not just talking about sight-reading but simply working out how to play a piece by reading the music on the page.

FWIW: I did have a chat with his parents and discovered that his mother's family are all musicians who play-by-ear with zero ability to read music. I think he picked up a bit of that "I don't need to read music snobbery" from his aunts and uncles.

July 15, 2018, 3:24 PM · "I think he picked up a bit of that "I don't need to read music snobbery""

Great sentence!

July 15, 2018, 3:30 PM · I am unclear as to what level the student is.

Does he play in an orchestra? I find that always helps in cases like this.

I like the I can read music books because of the step by step progression and the duets in book 2.The books also intentionally do not use recognizable tunes or will change something in a tune so the student has to read and focus on the notes. There are other notereading books as well. The ones by William Starr are great.

I agree with sightreading below playing level in lessons. It doesn't matter what you are sightreading.

I like the Doflein books for reading practice as they have lots of duets but use many different things for reading practice.

Otherwise, I just point out to the student how long it takes and how much it slows down their progress when they learn wrong notes (and then struggle to correct them) because they don't focus on the notes or actually read them even though they may be looking at them.

July 16, 2018, 6:33 AM · Actually, solfeggio has less to do with the names do-re-mi etc, but more with being able to sing a line of music you are reading. It's fine to just la-la-la it or hum it or sing it with the names C-D-E etc.
July 16, 2018, 7:37 AM · Following up on Roger's suggestion, duets are a great idea and there are tons of books of them available. You just have to be willing to take some lesson time for it. Again, piano teachers do this routinely. It's all about one's priorities.
July 16, 2018, 4:34 PM · Update: He came over today and we discussed the need to read music. I used Gene's admonition and the look on his face was that of shock. In answer to Laura's question: yes he does play in a youth orchestra and has been leaning on stand partners for quite some time. He didn't like the idea that relying on his stand partner meant that he would never be better than them.

I have to admit that I've been part of the problem by demonstrating the music as we turned pages in Doflein. Rather than just sticking to the teacher's part I'd play through the student part making it easy for him to just listen and copy.

As far as his "level" he's in book three of Doflein now.

Finally: when his mom stopped over following his lesson, I asked her about her family playing (they play Bollywood music for various occasions) and if she thought that knowing how to read sheet music might help. Fortunately, she was up-front about admitting that if they could all read music it would make learning new songs so much faster and easier.

I hope he got the message loud and clear.

Thanks for your assistance.

Edited: July 16, 2018, 6:25 PM · Same issue here....with ME as the student... different perspective!

Mainly because of age/motivation?

I have been playing fretted instruments for more than 50 years and have relied on a well developed ear that has served me well.

I retired last fall and took up learning the fiddle for the first time [ primarily interested in Scots/Irish traditional music]..... I decided at the same time to tackle reading standard notation for two reasons.

1. I knew my teacher would rely on it to a great extent as she is primarily classically trained {realized we actually went to college "together" 50 years ago, although she pointed out that while "my crowd" was raising a ruckus on Sproul Plaza and Telegraph Ave.... "her crowd" was hiding out in the basement of the Morrison Building}.

2. I knew that it wouldn't "hurt" me either musically or personally and look at it as a beneficial exercise in staving off the inevitable dotterage of having fewer and fewer synapses firing as they should.

I still find "picking up a tune" easier by ear, but find my self, more and more appreciating being able to pick up a piece of sheet music and sussing it out. { In folk forms, and especially vocal music there is still the issue of my natural tendency to flow with the rather free "Rubato" rather than the letter of the law....and reading time is my biggest challenge}

I have no idea how my situation would assist in convincing a teenager..... but it is one of those "shoulda, coulda, woulda, oughta, have done, situations that any one who is old enough to have a past reflects on now and then.

My teacher and I are obviously of a similar age and temperament so that helps with communication and motivation. You might want to consider finding a peer student of similar age, who does read well and sees the advantage and get them together....perhaps working on duets(?).....

Sometimes it isn't the message as much as the messenger. I certainly remember the conflict at that age between "want to" and being told "I have to".

JRay and Tobias have very valid points.... in that playing and reading are two separate skills...that need to be learned independently, to some extent. I have a strong understanding of theory and have always employed it to some extent in my playing..... actually reading {or specially sight reading} a score is brand new.

We work on the reading and playing both independently and combined....

{ Oh and for a real challenge try being a Southpaw who has always played right handed instruments..... I guess if Nichola B. and Russ Barrenburg can I can't use that as an excuse ;) ]

July 16, 2018, 8:53 PM · I just think any teacher needs to be sensitive to the the fact that playing by ear is a good skill to have and that it should not be shamed in any way. I think the ideal situation for any musician is to be able to read well and play by ear well. I get the impression that within modern violin teaching playing by ear is quite overlooked. It may be seen by some as unessential but many doors are being closed as a result.
July 16, 2018, 9:28 PM · Yeah, assign material that can't easily be found online. That's what I do in that situation with students.

Or, black out the name of the rest of the pieces before the student sees them. That could work.

July 17, 2018, 4:30 AM · I agree, having strong listening skills and ability to play by ear is also important.

I used to do these sessions for various pop songs (not big acts or anything) where there would be no written music for anything at all. I'd have to listen to what had already been put down, and improvise/generate stuff to fit around it.

Most playing for churches involves improvising around the hymnals, and simply regurgitating the melody is no good (the entire congregation is singing that line!). Hearing what the pianist or organist is doing and reacting to that is really valuable...

July 18, 2018, 6:29 AM · And there are those who may come from a folk music background where the mantra is "we play by ear, 'ere".

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