Sight-reading standard music notation is a wonderful skill to have. To define it in simple terms, it is the ability to make sense of a visual collection of notes within its context at first sight. This can either be an exciting or daunting skill for students and there are a number of arguments for and against it. The most common argument against reading standard music notation is that it comprises a difficult system compared to modern systems of reading music such as tablature.
A lot of students shy away from reading standard music notation. Because like a foreign language, the study of music is governed by basic rules and some tenets around those rules. It is not a crash course, where you benefit right away. Honestly, it takes years and a lot of correct practice to get good at it. Standard music notation had its popularity in earlier music and its usage catered to a small population.
Classical music has been less accessible due to a number of well-founded reasons that will take up another post in my blog. One of the strongest reasons as to why it might not be accessible to younger people may be due in part to its roots in elitist settings. In the years before the 20th century, technology for music was still 'in the works' and digital platforms to share music were to a point: non-existent. Everyone enjoyed the physical consumption of music and historical events played a part regarding what and where music was presented. . Truth be told, we also have less people who commission for classical music today than popular music.
Needless to say, maintaining interest in classical music is controllable and starts out really quite simple: learning the language. Once a student becomes familiar with the language, then comes context and relevance. The millennial generation today celebrates independence and autonomy in their decisions and that is why there is a constant need to reshape some ideas surrounding the study of classical music -- to make it a language that is relatable to people today.
The technical requirements of classical music’s repertoire, instruments, and ideals of beauty means that those who are unwilling or unable to make the long-term investment needed to master these are more drawn to autonomous art or music empowered by their own independent ideals (Bull, 2019).
The term 'classical' has been problematic for some people. In order to avoid disinterest, it is good to explore not just the whole umbrella of classical music, but the principles and skills within it. When I talk to my students, I avoid using terms that already have connotations in them such as 'old', 'traditional', 'classical, 'system' etc. It often scares them. Instead of using these concepts to reinforce interest, I look for specific skills in classical music such as sight-reading and then harness those skills. Classical music should not always be coined as elitist, hard, or boring.
Using the term 'classical' to learn an array of skills makes the study of classical music accessible to the younger generation. I am arguing that if we look at classical music as skills-based versus than a way of thinking, more students would be drawn to it.
Seeing a paper with a bunch of notes can be overwhelming for anyone who has not played any instrument before. That's why people love alternatives! Tablature may have replaced sheet music in terms of time and brain power required, because it tells you everything you need to do and where to do it; probably requiring less information overload and more on spectacle or performance. However, reading music in standard notation involves a more scientific approach to securing musical independence and creativity in the future.
The major point I like to make is that standard music notation allows a student to have tools to process musicality and apply ideas learned to new music, whereas tablature is containing and short-term. You can play tablature and sound like every other person out there. Standard music notation gives you artistic freedom and allows you to work precisely on specific areas of your playing.
Modern musical notation has its roots from the system developed by Guido D'Arezzo. This was created to help musicians not get lost as they work together, especially choirs in the early years. Guido created the 5 line staff that is in use today to denote pitches according to spatial location. As time went by, more musical systems were created such as the 'solfeggio' and the concerns of music grew. Having a system and using it was one, but improving musicianship was another. Because a system of naming notes is already in place, technical skills to improve musicianship such as sight-reading, rhythmic training, sight-singing, etc. became new focal points of musicians over the years. There are surprisingly different problems for different ages despite the same focus!
Beginners tend to focus on melodic sight-reading and this leads to reduced eye-hand coordination. On the other hand, more advanced players, focus on metric sight-reading, and this leads to reduced eye-hand coordination. (Mishra, 2015).
Advanced musicians because of their longer study time, tend to have aural training more than beginners, and therefore they may be able to analyze music automatically on a technical level. For children there is the joy of being able to recognize a tune, but for adults, there may also be the joy of being able to correct bad technique.
Here are some guidelines to follow when starting out a student with sight-reading a piece and the pitfalls to avoid as a teacher. These may all sound basic, but these are crucial to keep a student coming back and willing to practice.
Tip # 1: Do not play the entire piece for the student right away.
Every teacher's nightmare would be the concept of 'miming'. It is when a student will play according to how a teacher sounds, sometimes even looks like. This can result into over-dependence and less cognitive thinking for the student.
Tip # 2: Start small
Instead of focusing on a whole section, break down the piece into measures. If a student cannot play one measure, do not move on to the next. The challenge to this is keeping practice interesting for the student (check my previous article on intrinsic motivation). Break it down.
Tip # 3: Work small to avoid plummeting of interest
For example there is a scale that a student cannot read in a particular piece. Assist the student and help them play that scale in isolation. Do not rely on correction by just drilling it in context.
Only when a student is comfortable with the scale in isolation, then the student should do the scale in context with a previous measure and a measure after that within the piece. Isolating a difficult measure and practicing it in different contexts, protects attention span and the level of interest of students. Maneuvering difficult parts of the piece by first ejecting it from its original location can surprisingly support a student's practice.
Tip # 4: Never start by giving out answers right away. Start with a question and show enthusiasm. Paraphrase when needed.
This works well after a couple of months down the road when the student already grasped basic musical concepts such as note values and basic rhythmic patterns.
Students enjoy discovery as much as teachers enjoy progress, and there is a difference between showing and telling versus guiding and confirming. If there are unavoidable questions, paraphrase.
In sight-reading, entertain questions, but also allow students to discover answers on their own. Musical independence should be trained at an early stage to avoid unpreparedness for other challenges in learning music. After all, the student is not always with their teacher.
Sight-reading is such a beautiful skill and with the right methods and approach, it will open the student to making wonderful leaps in their progress and readiness to play complex music. It also opens the path to learning new skills and leveling up musical comprehension. There is no way a performance looks good without the right practice behind the curtains. Technique and art is what you get from studying classical music. Believe me in terms of performance, that the connections you make with an audience will be different than if you played a piece of music through tablature.
I will stress out that in addition, it is invaluable to study psychology and music education together as they create solutions that can support a teacher with explaining music theory to beginners and helping with strategies in teaching skills such as sight-reading.
Bull, A. (2019). Locating Classical Music in Culture. Class, Control, and Classical Music, 1-26. doi:10.1093/oso/9780190844356.003.0001
Mishra, J. (2016). Rhythmic and melodic sight reading interventions: Two meta-analyses. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1082-1094. doi:10.1177/0305735615610925
(The contents of this post are based on the author's point of view. Other research is highly recommended)