Sight Reading is like Vaccination

When my son Bryce was six-years-old, my husband Tony took him to see the film Spirited Away in the theater. It clocked in at just over two hours in Japanese with English sub-titles. I thought it was a bad idea. Bryce couldn’t read yet. It was going to annoy everyone.

As the movie began, Tony began whispering the subtitles to Bryce. After the third one, Bryce whispered back, “It’s OK, Dad. You can stop now.”

That’s how we found out that he could read. 

Later, he explained he hadn’t wanted to tell us because he was afraid we’d stop reading aloud to him. We loved reading to him, so that wouldn’t ever have happened. But he didn’t know that. He believed that if he could read on his own, the sweet moments with Mom and Dad were history.

When Brent, age 13, walked in my door, he was playing a tricky Joplin rag. Nothing simplified. I was excited to teach such a snazzy student, but quickly found that his previous teacher had inadvertently taught him entirely by rote. 

The challenge was getting him to confide to me exactly what he didn’t know about reading music. Which turned out to be everything. 

I devised a two-part plan. The first was designed to keep him playing. I gave him recordings, I played things for him and taught him by rote. It wasn’t fair to have him go cold turkey off the good stuff. 

The other part was much harder. Starting with the Snell Prep Books we worked through the simple pieces one note at a time. I didn’t play a single phrase for him. If I were doing it now, I would start with something even simpler like the Piano Town Primer. I would definitely use the Sight Reading Flashcards I made, but they unfortunately didn’t exist yet.

When teaching someone whose reading and playing levels are far apart is it’s the discrepancy that’s painful. Think about your driver’s license. What number does it say for your weight? Is it maybe, just a teency bit off? Would you like to broadcast that?

The only way to deal with a major reading discrepancy is to find out the truth and work from there. As Elissa Milne said so eloquently, 

“My first suggestion, which holds no matter what the context, is to find out where the student is comfortable reading at sight. Maybe it’s at Grade 1. Maybe it’s at an absolute beginner method book. But until you know where that comfort level is you are working in the dark.”

I was on the tube in London one day when a mother with three small children asked me how many stops it was till Piccadilly Circus. I couldn’t figure out why she was asking me until I realized she couldn’t read. “I’ve forgotten my glasses,” she offered, apologetically.

When playing level and reading levels become painfully far apart, a student will inevitably try to hide it. She will have devised work-arounds and her teacher will likely have enabled her. (Yes, we can even do this to our own students. We can be both the enabler and the person who decides to stop the enabling.) It’s like any other kind of enabling. It’s more work in the short-run to address the real issue. It can even be embarrassing. How did I not notice that Susie couldn’t read any notes in bass clef even though she played the Pathetique Sonata so well? Or, why did I ignore those clues? 

It happens. It can show up at any time and for a multitude of reasons. My little students, Caleb and Alex came to me from a Suzuki teacher. They couldn’t read a note. They wanted to learn to read, so we talked about it as a vaccination period. It would hurt for a little while, and then it would be over and never come back. 

Of course, everyone doesn’t need to learn to read music. There are too many fabulous blind musicians to ever make even attempt to make that argument. I’m talking here about students who want to read, teachers who want to teach them, and the problems that come when something’s gone wrong in that process.

So go ahead and be honest. Is there anyone in your studio who could use a little more honesty and a little less enabling?