Need an alternative to sight reading? YOYO boosts staff reading (and students will actually do it)

How many of your piano students like to sight read?

The more important question is: how many of your students avoid sight reading?

If you score low on students who like it and high on students who avoid it, this blog post is for you!

The traditional reading approach is to teach students to be able to play music accurately at first sight–to sight read. Now, let’s toss that idea OUT the window. Phew! Watch it go! And…it’s gone.

Now that we’ve gotten rid of the traditional idea, let’s move on to a better one.

I prefer to teach my students to read music in a way that helps them to learn music more easily.

YOYO reading means “You’re On Your Own.” I wish I could take credit for the idea because it’s wonderful. I got it from a teacher on a Facebook group. After several years of success with it, I want to spread the idea around.

1. Why sight reading doesn’t work for everyone

For some students, sight reading is very stressful.

The more stress a child feels, the worse they’ll do.

Sight reading comes with the expectation to strive to be perfect–or nearly perfect–on the very first reading. And to let mistakes go and to keep the steady beat going no matter what. So much is invested in this that it can create a crushing level of anxiety.

Some children feel so much pressure to be perfect “in one take” that a small mistake will completely undo them. In a sight reading situation, a breakdown in flow is equated with absolute failure.

Neurodiverse kids, kids who are highly distractible (little noises throw them off), kids who have differences in how their brains are wired or how they process incoming information, may all experience undue stress when expected to sight read.

Perfectionists may put so much pressure on themselves that it becomes all or nothing. There is no acceptable middle. For many, it feels easier to choose “nothing,” so they avoid reading altogether.

Instead of putting the focus on perfection the first time, put the focus on bouncebackability. Sticking with it, even with little setbacks. Persevering.

Did you make a mistake that stopped you in your tracks? Take another go at it. Keep trying. YOYO eases the pressure from the “now” and spreads the process over a longer timeframe.

2. The students who need sight reading…don’t

Every piano teacher knows the struggle to get certain students to read music. And it seems as though the very students who would benefit the most, don’t do it.

For students who struggle to read music, sight reading can be like wading knee-deep in thick mud. The music comes slowly, maybe in fits and starts or all-out stops. It just doesn’t sound good. That’s why students avoid it. As painful as it is for you to watch and listen to it unfold, it’s even more painful for the student.

If your overall goal is to help students to become better at reading music, then consider using an approach that allows them to read 1) without your scrutiny, 2) at their own pace, and 3) on their own time.

Your first task is to encourage every student to try–to get them to invest in the effort of reading to play music. In short, this delicate task is to turn students who don’t into students who DO.

3. Find reading that students will actually do

The general rule with sight reading is to read two levels down from the level of your repertoire. So, a Level 5 student would sight read Level 3 music.

Now let’s toss that idea out the window, too.

A better idea is to choose a comfortable level of music for your student. Setting an arbitrary level that students should be able to sight read just leads to frustration with some kids. Instead, think deeply about this student’s real-life capabilities, and go from there.

For my Elementary to Intermediate level students, I’ve had great success with the Faber supplementary library. We use the Piano Adventures Repertoire and Popular Repertoire books for YOYO reading. We don’t use this series in regular piano lessons, so the music is fresh and new for them.

In the Faber library the levelling is so consistent and the pieces so appealing that it motivates today’s kids to learn the music on their own. Even if your students have already learned from the method, you may still have success with titles they haven’t before played (below their current level).

Another option could be to consult your library of studio-licensed music and print off sheets you know they’ll enjoy learning.

Or, if your student has a collection of past repertoire books that have only been partially learned, look through for lost nuggets that might revive use of that book.

4. Reading with a purpose to learn

Even the name of this reading activity sounds fun: YOYO. When something sounds fun to do, it’ll catch your student’s attention.

When you have a child’s attention and they think something will be fun, they’ll invest effort. And what follows effort? True learning.

The saying goes, “First, you learn to read, then you read to learn.” But for some children, maybe the two are more intertwined. Maybe it takes reading to learn to learn how to read. That’s how YOYO works, anyway.

5. How to assign YOYO pieces

After I’ve chosen the book for the child, we go through it in the order that the pieces are printed. They’ll learn one piece at a time (one piece per week, ideally).

In the lesson I will play it for them, once. After all, I want them to be excited to play this music! They’ll be learning this piece unassisted. So, to invest in that effort, they first need to be sold on the sounds of the music.

When you think about it, how often does anyone play music that they’ve never, ever heard? Professional musicians may have this skill…but children? There’s nothing wrong (and everything right) with playing the music first.

I’ll talk about the context of a piece. If it’s a hit from Broadway, I’ll briefly mention that. I encourage them to listen to the original recording on YouTube at home. If it’s an arrangement, I’ll explain that the one they’re learning is based on the original but not exactly the same.

In the lesson, that’s it. They don’t try it for me. I don’t point out rhythms or notes or anything. In their dictation book I don’t write pointers. Just “YOYO” and the title.

They’re pushed out of the nest on this one with the belief that they’ll be able to find their wings and fly on their own.

6. How YOYO develops literacy

Fiddler on the Roof original poster.

YOYO reading develops literacy in two ways.

First, it develops a child’s reading literacy. What does it mean to read? It means to read the symbols and make the sounds at the same time (notice that same time isn’t the same thing as first sight).

Quite often as a child learns to read words in story books, they will re-read the same story many, many times. They memorize it. After it is memorized, their eyes still skim the words. The flow they achieve by knowing the words before they read them, helps them to learn to read. Reading fluency is developed through repetition. Through comfort. Through enjoying it. The familiarity with the text drives the desire to read.

The same flow is achieved with reading YOYO pieces. As the student reads and plays the piece through many times during the week, they get more and more familiar with it, get better at playing it, and develop flow playing it as they continue to read it. In this sense, this truly is the best way to teach a child how to read music.

Second, YOYO develops literacy–as in the knowledge of music literature. Many of the kids do listen to the originals on YouTube. It’s wonderful how they take this mature step of researching their music. The bonus value of YOYO is that students are experiencing music from our collective culture that they may never have heard before–like tunes from Fiddler on the Roof. This music is worth knowing!

7. Next or fix?

In the follow-up lesson, most of my students are excited to play their YOYO piece for me. They’re proud. They’ve worked hard. And they know that what they’ve done is special.

I’m proud of them! Wow! What a feeling as a teacher–you’ve taught this little person how to read music (incredible) and now they’ve been able (and willing) to use that skill to learn music on their own!

I’m blown away when they play their piece for me, and I let them know it! Maybe it’s my level of pride and how I gush about their accomplishment that spurs them on and on with this assignment. And I don’t fake it. I’m genuinely excited for them!

I’m a “glass half full” kind of teacher with YOYO assignments. We don’t tend to fix. As an afterthought I’ll point out a little problem and say, “If you want to keep playing this piece, try this….” — but then — it’s done! It’s their choice whether they keep playing it or fix the problem.

The real exercise was to see how much they could learn on their own. I take mental notes of little challenges and then we simply move on to the next piece.

The key to becoming a better reader is to enjoy reading! And to go through a volume of reading material!

8. Are they truly reading with YOYO?

It’s been said that to become a lifelong musician, one must learn how to read music well. We can throw that idea out the window with all of the other bad ideas mentioned above. There are countless musicians who make more cash than I do who can’t read a note.

But imagine encouraging kids who would typically struggle to read to become comfortable at it. That’s what YOYO reading does.

I’m amazed when I see my students playing their YOYO assignments. I watch their overall approach and watch their eyes. They are tracking the sheet music with their eyes as they play–truly reading and playing. With flow.

The answer is YES–this approach does get kids to learn how to read.

YOYO encourages curiosity, self-sufficiency and helps students fly on their own. 

After I’d been doing this for a while, one by one my students brought pieces to their lessons that they’d taught themselves without me even asking them to.

It was truly a magical moment for me as a teacher, and it happened across several families. What I was instilling in my students wasn’t an obsession with being perfect on one reading, but reading with a purpose to learn.

It’s the best thing I’ve ever done on the reading front.

You are encouraged to give this approach a try with your students! Please let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear in the comments!


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

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

Kaleidoscope Dream (Late Elementary, Level 1). Here’s a piece that reflects the beauty and mesmerizing slow cascade of colours in a kaleidoscope as you turn it towards the light! Explores rolling eighths and dotted-quarters in 6/8 meter and is ideal as an introduction to the time signature! Available as the studio-licensed Kaleidoscope Dream eSheet!

Listen to Kaleidoscope Dream on YouTube!
Listen to a sound clip of Spy Game!

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