I see this question posted quite often in piano teacher discussion groups. Learning to read music truly is like learning a new language, so it is no surprise that many students struggle with note reading. However, I think any student has the potential to be a strong note reader!
Over the years, I have developed several teaching strategies that I think have helped my students tremendously in their note reading. By following these strategies, I would say that 90% of my students are excellent readers. (Part 2 of this post will focus on additional resources I use to help the small percentage of students that still struggle with note reading after using the strategies I list below!)
My strategies for developing strong note reading skills:
1. Introduce new notes on the staff well before a student will see them in a piece of music.
This is the number one strategy that I recommend for setting students up for success with note reading. It is easy for students to become overwhelmed if they are trying to both decode new notes and play them on the piano for the first time! Planning ahead and introducing notes on the staff one or two weeks before students see them for the first time in their music makes a huge difference.
2. Drill, drill, drill.
At the beginner level, we spend a lot of time at each lesson drilling notes. We name the notes in their pieces before playing, we say the notes as we play, we use iPad apps to play note naming games. Students get note naming worksheets and puzzles to do at home as part of their weekly assignment. Developing a strong foundation in note reading requires lots of repetition and review.
I find that most beginner books provide 1-2 songs using a set number of notes on the staff before adding additional notes. For many students, this is not enough reinforcement for them to learn the notes securely. Don’t be afraid to supplement with additional music—you might choose a beginning level repertoire book, or use a public domain sheet music site with beginner-level pieces. Make sure your students really “get” the notes they are using in their current pieces before assigning pieces with additional notes.
4. Work on intervallic reading.
Being a good note reader requires not only a familiarity with notes on the staff, but also an understanding of how to look for patterns between the notes. Have students “connect the dots” in their music to discover whether notes are stepping up or down; ask students to circle notes that skip and find repeated patterns in their music. Make sure elementary students understand how to spot intervals of a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th and drill these using apps, flashcards, or worksheets, just like you drill the note names. You might also encourage intervallic reading by asking students to transpose their pieces to different keys—or use one of my free transposing challenge sheets, found HERE.
5. Have students read new music at every lesson.
Developing good reading skills takes practice! Beginning students should be working on new music at every lesson in order to get as much practice as possible reading notes on the staff. By providing students with lots of short-term goal pieces that can be mastered quickly, you will be building good note reading skills—and your students’ self-confidence too!
What do you think? Do you use any of these strategies with your students? Any other tips you would like to share for helping students develop strong note reading skills? Please leave a comment below!