How To Help Your Kids Read Music

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There is one great difficulty kids have with the piano that is rarely discussed. This is the need to look constantly from the page to the keys.

Many teachers do not permit this looking from one place to another: the eyes are on the page, no matter what. Do not look at your hands.

The only way this can be accomplished is to use fingering in a rigid way (so there is no need to look at the hand.) The additional problem created is that the music capable of being played in this way, (looking only at the page) is laughably bad. Kids hate this fake “music.”

The real problem is that teachers are confusing “sight reading” with “reading music.” Sight reading is playing music you have never seen before.

Sight reading does in fact require the pianist to look constantly at the page, since it is music they have never seen before. Only a quick peek at the hands to reassure themselves in tricky spots may be necessary.

But kids should not be expected to “sight read.” It is a skill best left for later, and is usually a skill refined by highly skilled musicians, rarely kids.

Far better to let kids look at the keys as they are learning to read music.

Below is what kids are shown when they start to read music:

Five lines above, keyboard below
Five lines above, keyboard below

There are two different graphic systems here, the five lines, and the keyboard below. Kids are mystified: there is no relationship or readily-apparent similarity between the two systems.

A BETTER SYSTEM

It would be far better to give kids reference points on the keys that help to show the correspondence between the page and the keys.

A musical staff referenced to a piano keyboard using removable stickers.
Relating the lines to the keys

We place five blue stickers to denote the five lines.

We place one red sticker to denote the location of Middle C.

FINDING MIDDLE C SHOULD BE FIRST

To make the process as clear as possible, restrict yourself to finding Middle C at first, both on the page and on the keys.

Middle C has a unique look, with two little lines sticking out from the sides of the circular note. No other note in beginning piano looks like Middle C.

Middle C

Here’s a page full of Middle Cs. Get the child to show you all the Middle Cs.

Page with lots of Middle C's to find.

Doodley Doodley Game

I make a silly game of finding Middle C called “Doodley Doodley” in which I say “Doodley, doodley” repeatedly and quietly as I scan my finger across the page slowly under each note. When the child sees a Middle C (the circle with the line through it) they get to ring a library bell, we both laugh, and then we continue, “Doodley, doodley…..”

Lines and Spaces Game

Take any piece of sheet music, point slowly to each note, asking, “Line or space?” There are only two positions for notes on the five-lined staff: on a line, or on a space in between the lines.

I make a game of having a pop quiz often, wherein I show the child a page of music and demand that they tell me if each note pointed to is on a line or a space. Kids are not used to using their eyes in this critical fashion: this is where they learn how.

I avoid asking for the names of the notes, as I leave that separate process to chord study: the rationale is that if a child can find a C chord, they know where C is.

Another skill entirely is finding notes by name anywhere on the keyboard. So I play a game where I point out that C is to left of the two blacks, “Play every C on the piano.” Now they have to use their eyes to find every group of two blacks, and then the white key to the left.

Naming notes by themselves I find useless, at least at first. It is far more important to let the child have facility with the symbols on the page, and their correspondence to the keys. Naming notes comes slowly as they gain control of all the other elements.

START WITH NUMBERS

Kids have a better chance of sticking with the piano if they are allowed to have careful, directed fun at first, using a transparent system like numbers rather than diving into reading boring music in the form of musical notes.

Only when the child is comfortable with the geography of the keyboard should they be introduced slowly to reading music.

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