How to read piano staff music with more confidence [Printable]

I Googled ‘how to read music.’ I got 3,670,000,000 results. “How to read music” has the same number of online results as Pluto’s average distance from the Sun (in miles). That’s three billion, six hundred seventy million.

Learning to read music has nearly quadruple the content as another frequently-searched topic: Donald Trump, who has 924,000,000 results. (Donald Trump is 2,746,000,000 articles and videos behind learning to read music).

A lot of people want to learn how to read music, and a lot of music teachers want to help their students to learn how to read music better.

Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who had to struggle to learn the subject, themselves. The best math teacher I ever had confessed one day that he had majored in English. His own effort to learn math made him search to explain it to us in ways we would understand.

Confession time: as a child I was a reluctant, hesitant reader. It was more natural for me to learn by ear. I was lucky to have a teacher (my sister) who went with the flow. Had I started with another teacher in the 80s I may have fallen through the cracks or been misunderstood or quit.

When children take longer to learn how to read music, when they can’t seem to master it, piano teachers can run out of ideas on how to help them learn to read. Some teachers genuinely want to help these kids. Others get frustrated. It’s almost like they think the student is “cheating” or “rebelling.” Actually, they’re just being themselves.

Keep reading to find out how these score cards
and sticky notes can help build reading confidence.

The Good News

The good news is that it is possible to teach everyone to learn how to read music. If I can, anyone can.

There are several important components that make up the process we call “reading music.” They are:

  • Comprehension – knowing what you see (the pitch, rhythm, what the finger numbers mean, symbols for loud and soft and other expressive indications).
  • Application – knowing where on the instrument to play what you see, knowing how to play rhythms, finger numbers, staccato, legato, piano and forte.
  • Coordination – developing the eye-brain-hand coordination to seamlessly meld the first two factors (comprehension and application).
  • Aural confirmation – the ear’s feedback loop, the real-time assessment that what you just played was indeed what was written. This is important because it helps to keep you on track or adjust as you read and play forward.
  • Consolidation – the ability to simultaneously recognize and process what you see, how to apply it to the instrument, coordinate the physical responses, and hear while you look ahead to what comes next. This is reading fluency.

(As musicians advance, the ear becomes integral with the reading process with ‘audiation,’ imagining the sound as it is read. Audiation does not always include playing at the same time, which is the focus of this article.)

Many books, online articles, piano methods, teachers and programs are very good at teaching the visual and doing aspects of reading music. Here is a symbol. This is what it means. This is how you “do” the symbol. If you need help with factors one and two, I’ll recommend the other 3,670,000,000 articles you’ll find online.

This article is different. Here you will find a gentle and stress-free idea of someone who has worked very hard to become a fluent reader. I know what it’s like to struggle, and wish to relieve the struggle of others like me, or others teaching students like me.

It isn’t enough to simply focus on the symbols and how to do the symbols. If you want to be or create a fluent reader, your strategy must include all the factors mentioned above. Furthermore, you must discover what else is holding you or your student back.

What’s holding you back?

Some struggle with reading, even after years of learning to play the piano. You may have already learned your note names and rhythms and perhaps can play music quite well. It’s just that there’s something preventing you from moving to the next level of reading fluently with confidence. There are several common things holding pianists and students back from becoming fluent readers of music:

  • Self-doubt – past failed experiences will play on the mind and cause insecurity while sight reading. The stress will interfere with clear comprehension and realization.
  • Nervousness – adrenaline will compromise the focus.
  • Heightened distractibility – the fight or flight fear kicks in and everything happening in the room suddenly becomes a distraction from focusing calmly on the process of reading and playing simultaneously.
  • Coordination barriers – while the notes may be comprehended, there is little ability to seamlessly apply what is understood. Reading seems choppy, stop-and-go, unsure.
  • Key dependency – The eyes may already be addicted to watching the hands on the keys, essentially “babysitting” the fingers. The reader doesn’t trust that they’d be able to play without watching their hands, so there is no established ability to track the notes visually and play at the same time.
  • Unrealistic expectations of perfection – there is a false notion that good readers play music perfectly, and therefore any mistake is a sign of failure, which in turn feeds self-doubt and increases nervousness, which leads to a breakdown in the reading flow and possibly giving up.

Do any of the points sound familiar? Over time I will address each one. This post will focus on turning self-doubt into belief, nervousness into confidence and unrealistic expectations of perfection into realistic expectations of attainable accomplishment.

Phil Mickelson’s 18th hole double bogie, June 2006, US Open Championships at Winged Foot.

Even professional golfers make double bogies

Professional baseball players strike out. Repeatedly. Professional football players fumble the ball.

When you remind yourself that even the very best top athletes can make errors (fairly often, and they keep their jobs), it helps to reframe your own expectations when you sight read music — as a highly-trained human. The truth is if you embrace the unexpected when reading music, you’ll relax and better process what you see, play and hear. You will experience better flow between all the functions that are simultaneously happening while you read. It will all flow better if you stop worrying about being perfect. Throw out the need to sight play perfectly. Even professional golfers make double bogies.

What is a double bogie in golf? While par is the expected score of a hole, a double bogie is two over par. With the majority of professional golfers able to finish each hole under par, a double bogie is an embarrassing occurrence. And yet, it happens.

When it does, you’ll see the pro athlete trying to remain calm and focused, and get their head back into the game.

It is normal in golf to have to have many strokes before the ball drops in the hole.

How golf can help you sight read better

To become a more fluent sight reader of music, I’d like to invite you to use the golf analogy to hone your reading skills over time (or to use it with your students). Here’s why sight reading golf works:

  • While the hole in one does exist in golf, it is very rare, just as it is very rare for a person to sight read something perfectly in only one try.
  • Most golfers need several strokes to complete each hole. Likewise, give yourself several tries with the same sight reading example, moving each run-through closer to the sound you want it to be.
  • Like a golfer, keep track of how many tries it takes you to notice and play all of the details of your musical example.
  • Be satisfied with your score, because it’s likely pretty good.
  • By taking the pressure off playing music perfectly the first time and allowing yourself to relax and accept how your playing really goes, you’ll reduce frustration, lessen self-doubt and eliminate disappointment. You’ll move to a higher plane of learning from your mistakes. The more you play sight reading golf the better you’ll get at noticing patterns and details you used to miss. The better your eye-hand coordination will become.

The key to sight reading golf is keeping your head level and accepting the outcome, while continuing to try for your desired result.

Print the FREE score cards from the Piano at Play Printables.
Isolate the sight reading example with sticky notes.

How to include sight reading golf in your piano lessons

If you are a piano teacher, use sight reading golf in lessons with your hesitant readers. Follow these steps:

  • Level: choose a music book two levels below the music your student is currently learning (or lower, should your student need it).
  • Length. Begin with two (2) measures. Isolate the measures from the longer piece by placing sticky notes before and after.
  • Keep score. Print my FREE “Sight Reading ACE” score cards from my blog’s Printables page. Use one card each time your student reads a short example.
Cut out the Sight Reading ACE score cards and use one per week.
  • Have fun. Stay relaxed and allow the mistakes to happen, because they will. If you remain calm, your student will be able to concentrate better.
  • Simply and quietly circle with pencil any details your student misses, perhaps only one correction per “stroke” or try. Stay positive. Possible things to circle: missed notes, finger numbers, dynamics, slurs, and staccatos. Do this without commenting; simply let them figure out on their own how to fix what you’ve circled. Then let them go again, trying to encompass the element you’ve pointed out. It’s like you’re the caddie.
  • After several weeks of sight reading, if your student has mastered reading two measures, try three, then four. This may take time.
  • Always be happy with your student’s score. Par is a good score, even if it takes three to four “strokes” or tries to get there. And remember, even the best golfers miss par sometimes.

Over time, if you give your student a chance to have some positive reading experiences, their level of anxiety surrounding sight reading will wane and they will develop greater confidence that they can do it and belief in their ability to improve.

For years this strategy has been helping my students gain confidence in sight reading. It can help yours, too. Please print this FREE printable scoresheet for use in your studio.

Each learner is unique, and this post addresses reading issues surrounding lack of confidence, insecurity about past failures, and unrealistic expectations of perfection. Other strategies will be discussed in future blog articles for students who insist on watching their hands and who have difficulties with note recognition and tracking.

Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notification of my posts each week in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

Video of the week: ‘Misty River’ from Rock That Train, Elementary to Late Elementary. Pattern-based piece good for Late Elementary reading.

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