This year my son is a first grader. I am learning that first grade is an exciting time in the development of reading skills. Already I have noticed that he is growing tremendously as a reader. I am thankful for his wonderful teacher who is helping him to develop these skills. The teacher in me, has been fascinated by how the skills used to develop emerging readers of text can translate into work at the piano.
1. Sight Words
Every trimester we have a list of words that are commonly used in reading. These words are supposed to be practiced frequently at home to build a “library” of words that are easily recognized. Sometimes I have heard them referred to as “popcorn words” because they should roll of the tongue like popcorn. These words are practiced often at school and we are encouraged to practice them at home as well. We always are building on the words that have already been completed—our list continues to grow. The teachers are always encouraging families to find ways to make practicing these words fun. My son’s kindergarten teacher often used the phrase, “make it fun, make it snappy.” They have suggested ways to make the practice fun, using games, or tactile practice of the words.
In piano, this is similar to flashcards. Our students can start with just a few flashcards and build to adding more and more flashcards. For the first few years of study, students should practice the flashcards regularly in their lesson, and also at home. We teachers can help the at home practice by suggesting creative ways to practice these common notes and work toward greater speed and fluidity in recognizing them.
2. Fluency Binder
My son has what is called a fluency binder. This folder is filled with poems—a new poem is given each week. He is supposed to say the new poem each day at home and also repeat a few of the old poems from previous weeks. The goal is to build fluency in reading through repetition and rhyme. Many of the poems studied have been beyond his actual reading ability, but because of the rhymes he has been able to learn them both aurally and through looking at the words.
The piano correlation to the fluency binder would be rote pieces. Rote pieces are such an important part of piano study. They allow the student to build fluency at the instrument without struggling to read the notes. Another parallel to the fluency binder would be having students continue to play older pieces in their repertoire. At The New School we often have students complete “Repertoire Lists” in which they keep track of pieces that are learned and continue to play these pieces at home.
3. Independent Reading
Each day in school, a portion of the reading time is devoted to independent reading. The students have a little box with 10 books that they use to read during this time each day. Each week they choose a new set of books for their box At the beginning of the year, the teacher explained the purpose of the book box. She told us that the level of the books in the box would be slightly lower than the level they might be working on with the teacher. They read and reread the books at this independent level, sometimes with a partner. The reading at this level helps them to increase fluency and propels them to the next level.
The correlation to the piano lesson is that students should always be working at pieces that are at an independent, or “on own” level. This likely may be a level below the music that is carefully prepared and introduced in the lesson. The student should be able to read the notes and rhythms accurately on their own, and can learn these pieces without frustration.
This year, I have been working with a piano student who I would call a “reluctant reader.” The student experiences reading challenges in school and is not confident about reading music. I made it a goal to assign at least one piece each week that is an “on own” piece. At the beginning of the year, my student did not want to try any portion of the piece on his own. We moved slowly through the pieces, gradually encouraging him to try more on his own. At this point in the year, he is perfectly confident being sent home with a piece that is a level below his reading level. I know that he will return with accurate notes and rhythm. Consequently, he has become much more adept at learning the pieces at his level more quickly and easily. All of this is improving his confidence in playing and as a result he is feeling pleased with the success he is experiencing at the piano.
In many ways, learning to read music is much like learning to read the printed word. Both take time, patience, and much work. I am thankful for my son and his wonderful teacher for giving a new picture of breaking down the skills needed for my piano students to become fluent readers of music.