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Learn to play before you read? (Read 1249 times)

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Learn to play before you read?
« on: October 23, 2019, 02:06:57 AM »
A discussion about this might help answer questions and offer some basic strategy for those in the early stages of their music study in regards to playing vs reading.

When I teach early beginners who have little or no experiene with playing the piano I almost always go the path of developing their playing experience before learning from actual sheet music. Practicing to coordinate the body is made more difficult if reading skills are added on top of it so separating the two during the beginning stages of development makes progress more efficient (and less frustrating) for most beginner students. Once a student has learned to play a number of pieces and learned to coordinate their hands playing together then we can start to move towards reading sheet music.

I create an altered form of sheet music which becomes more detailed as my beginner student develops, it includes musical notes, finger numbers and images which define position, also lines and arrows which show coordination between the hands and colors and shapes to define pattern in the music and sections. There are of course many other ways to simplify the reading process but they must paves a way towards reading actual sheet music. Creating altered reading sheets which have little correlation to actual sheet music doesn't seem logical as it would make the transition between the two more abrupt.

Students also need to have a certain grasp on fingering principles, when reading sheet music they want to have some confident knowing which fingers to use with and why. If there is little playing experience and you force a student into reading skills then their fingering decision making will have a tendency for uncertainty and they they will face situations where they don't understand which fingers to actually use due to the lack of their playing experience.

From my experiences I have found that beginners almost always prefer to be able to play some pieces on the piano, they don't want to be held up by the drudgery of learning to read sheet music on top of that. Once they have a good number of pieces under their belt then they transition to reading more readily.

I wonder if anyone has been subjected to learning to read before they could play some pieces and how it worked out for them? Does anyone have good reasons why reading sheet music should be done alongside playing experience from the getgo?
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Offline outin

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #1 on: October 23, 2019, 02:57:15 AM »
Aren't almost all students learning to read from the start if they use classical methods? I was taught this way as a child and I started reading at once when I restarted as an adult. It might have been better to do it your way as a kid, since many of my problems with the piano lessons were related to my reading problems, later discovered to be a side effect of my dyscalculia. I still suffer from them despite years of reading practice. I recently started another instrument and I am trying to focus more on playing by ear and less on the scores and it is really refreshing.

Online j_tour

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #2 on: October 23, 2019, 03:07:34 AM »
I had a pretty good reply to your last question, but I accidentally did something with my browser and don't know if I can find it in its cache.

Nice question, BTW.

The short of it is, in my experience, since that's what you're asking, I learned to read notes and durations in the G and F clefs as part of a standard curriculum before I played any instrument.  I don't know what years those were:  in the US educational system, maybe first or second grade.  Not a fancy school, just a regular publicly-funded elementary school in the sticks.  Not any special band class or anything, just something everyone was taught.  You know, teacher at the front of a small group with a big bunch of staves and amusing representations of notes and their temporal values.  No theory, or anything, just how to read music in the big two clefs.

What it did for me was create a kind of ideal representation of what I would later hear in person and on records and discs. 

So, standard notation was a constant filter:  I'd hear, like, Otis Spann or Ray Charles, and figure out pretty close what their fingers were doing, but it wasn't finished for me until I wrote it out. 

In some ways that approach wasted a lot of my time, at least for that kind of music, but it did teach me good handwriting and perhaps a bit too much obsessiveness about making the score meet the sound.

With more maturity and years of practice, including serious study of repertoire in my tweens/early teens, I managed to find new ways of associating sounds (functional harmony, voicings, transposing) with something less strict, but it took quite a few years to get there.  Decades, really.

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Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #3 on: October 23, 2019, 03:25:42 AM »
Aren't almost all students learning to read from the start if they use classical methods?
Traditional lessons yes I guess so. If student study classical music this can also be done without actually reading sheet music to begin with with more modernized or hybrid approaches. Of course we study technical patterns at the piano like scales, chords, arpeggios and coordinations between the two hands, like melody vs these technical patterns and later down the track on part playing, melodies combined.

I was taught this way as a child and I started reading at once when I restarted as an adult. It might have been better to do it your way as a kid, since many of my problems with the piano lessons were related to my reading problems, later discovered to be a side effect of my dyscalculia. I still suffer from them despite years of reading practice. I recently started another instrument and I am trying to focus more on playing by ear and less on the scores and it is really refreshing.
I think the approach of playing before reading works well for all ages and as you have pointed out it is "refreshing" even at your age now. We play our instruments to be able to create music with as little interruption as possible no matter what level we play at. No one likes to feel overwhelmed or feel like progress is a snails pace and creating the music requires a mountain of work to reach. I think especially for beginners we need to as teachers provide them to experiences where their progress is efficient and they don't have too many hurdles, there is time for that later on once they have actually enjoyed creating some music and tasted the good fruits of creating their own art! As they become more confident and face more difficult challenges they have already desensitized to the workloads required to overcome them and also have some tools to deal with it all.

I find the problem with forcing reading early on is that to make the experience flow efficiently they must do works which is very simple, this might not provide very interesting creation of art for them! We can often play pieces at a higher level if we approach them without the score and the student can gain experience playing more complicated works and feel proud of their work. Going back to simple pieces when developing reading skills is something a student will more readily subject themselves to once they have actually played some interesting works on the piano.

I had a pretty good reply to your last question, but I accidentally did something with my browser and don't know if I can find it in its cache.
I hate it when that happend -_-

The short of it is, in my experience, since that's what you're asking, I learned to read notes and durations in the G and F clefs as part of a standard curriculum before I played any instrument.  I don't know what years those were:  in the US educational system, maybe first or second grade.  Not a fancy school, just a regular publicly-funded elementary school in the sticks.  Not any special band class or anything, just something everyone was taught.  You know, teacher at the front of a small group with a big bunch of staves and amusing representations of notes and their temporal values.  No theory, or anything, just how to read music in the big two clefs.
This is something I forgot to mention in the opening post. I believe that the basics for learning to read should be done at the get go like you have described. Being able to tap rhythms, beats, and name notes all these are important skills that should be done asap. You need to go further when applying it to your insturment, a beginner student should be able to find on the piano all the line and space notes on both staves and know were all the C's are above and below each. This skill set is essential and not something I think should be ignored. However going beyond this and then taking actual music and making beginner student solely learn with sheets, this is what I think is a less exciting approach for most since it requires that level of music is lowered so that the learning experienced is somwhat efficient as mentioned previously in this post.
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Offline outin

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #4 on: October 23, 2019, 04:21:49 AM »
I was also taught some  basic musical theory in normal school. But I started piano lessons before that.

The way I study cello together with my teacher now is this:
I pick familiar short songs that I already know by heart. I then write them down with musescore into a key that my teacher wants me to learn. I use the sheet to mark bow and string changes and fingerings and help me divide the piece into sections, I don't need to really read the notes but play by ear. Of course unlike the piano cello must be played by ear all the time anyway.
One reason that we work this way is that cello methods are much worse than piano methods. They all contain same kind of pieces that I mostly cannot stand and a lot of repetitive exercises. I do exercises but we tailor them to my needs.
This method is not transferable as such to piano I guess...there are far too many notes to play in even simple pieces..

Offline ranjit

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #5 on: October 23, 2019, 07:05:15 AM »
It might have been better to do it your way as a kid, since many of my problems with the piano lessons were related to my reading problems, later discovered to be a side effect of my dyscalculia.
Do you mean dyslexia? Dyscalculia affects your ability to deal with numbers iirc. Does it affect reading sheet music as well?

Offline ted

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #6 on: October 23, 2019, 08:46:18 AM »
Strangely enough I learned to read music when very young, well before school anyway, and music with my first teacher always involved a score. In retrospect I wish it hadnít happened that way as it delayed improvisation and fluent expression of ideas for at least a further fifteen years. Ideally I think both approaches ought to occur simultaneously, but improvising teachers were very rare in those days and probably still are.
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Offline outin

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #7 on: October 23, 2019, 12:50:45 PM »
Do you mean dyslexia? Dyscalculia affects your ability to deal with numbers iirc. Does it affect reading sheet music as well?

It commonly does, but it may be because it is often coupled with problems in visual perception. I do not have dyslexia, I have excellent reading and writing skills.
The problems are in automatic calculation processies and when reading one must calculate lines all the time, even if it happens unconsciously. What happens with me my brain interprets things wrong and do not see the placement of notes correctly. I can read in theory, but when trying to play from music I tire and make weird mistakes after only a few lines. The difficulty of music is not relevant, the more notes and voices the easier it often is because there are more reference points. Except when there are too many beams, then I often only see a black mess on the page.

I can do math too if it is more advanced, I just cannot handle numbers and make simple calculations without mistakes.

Online j_tour

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #8 on: October 23, 2019, 04:44:13 PM »
Yeah, you know mathematics starts to get real when you stop doing arithmetic and use letters and arrows. 

Oh, what I was going to add is that, after just playing for a bit "When The Saints Go Marching In" in a bunch of different keys is that the old baroque notion of a "hand grip" or I think ein Griff, is relevant to music playing and learning. 

That was the main lesson that playing R&B/rock_and_roll/blues taught me on the keyboard, and it has nothing to do with reading. 

Take, like, Bach's E major sinfonia.  Fine, but transpose the same lines up or down a half-step and the approach is completely different.  Or it should be, I think, if you want it to sound like it should.

Classical music has the advantage of well-established patterns of fingering, so something like that isn't such a big deal, but I'd bet my next paycheck that if you ask your friendly neighborhood rock and roller to play whatever in some strange keys, he or she wouldn't be able to transition so easily.  They'll hit the main points, but their fancier stuff is not going to transfer unless they've learned the physical characteristics of a key.  It wasn't until I was about thirty or so that I figured out how to do a blues-based tune in Db, even though I figured out early on that to do one key means doing the IV of that chord, and loads of stuff is in Ab.  Just never learned the trick of playing in that key, until I figured out how to do my usual stuff in it.  I'll never get B as a tonic key, though, for improvising regular blues-based music.


Because they haven't learned the shapes or hand-formations required for each key. 

I think the big lie is that the piano is not a physical instrument.  We don't just sit at the keyboard like lumps and do what we're reading:  there's a physical element, right down to the millimeter, and angle of the hand measured in millseconds of a degree, that has probably been given short shrift. 

EDITED TO ADD:  No, I realize any reasonable effort at piano pedagogy is based on some ideas of controlling effort, and so forth.  It's just that I think the physical approach is probably a fringe approach, and it probably shouldn't be that way. 

That sentence probably cannot be parsed reasonably, but I think the point is clear enough.
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Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: Learn to play before you read?
«Reply #9 on: November 05, 2019, 11:55:34 AM »
Beat and rhythm should be trained before tackling learning directly from sheets. Knowing how to count the division of time between beats should be trained thoroughly and should be tapped out perfectly and confidently (either a single pattern in one hand or a single/combination of them between the hands). One large challenge with playing music appropriately through reading skills is that you maintain a keen sense for the divisions of time and maintain a steady beat.

We need to develop an understanding for the segments of time based on time signature and how rhythmic devices can be used in each. It doesn't have to be an encyclopaedic invesitgation of many complicated rhythms full of syncopation between hands or tied notes everywhere to double dotted and dotted notes and whatever other madness is out there, we can just work on the basic even distributions of rhythms(semiquavers vs minums,crotchets, quavers and all other equivalent ratios,  some simple dotted crotchet/minim rhythms and maybe some triplet rhythms. Obviously the notes used when investigating in these patterns will be kept simple and can be reduced to actions like claps or taps between hands for instance.

With many of my early beginners who are have had little basic musical education I find that all these beat and rhtyhm basics need to be explored even away from the piano itself. Then once it is controlled through investigations we learn to produce the effort with our fingers at the keyboard with different drills and then finally over to real sheet music once there is that experience base.

Sure some people can do everything at once, some talented individuals with no musical experience simply learn to read immediately and manage to keep in time naturally, they also have a knack to maintain correct fingering etc etc. However the majority of beginners will benefit from building up their efforts in smaller steps and often feel overwhelmed if they have to jump in the deep end and start reading and playing from the get go.
Everything we do should feel controlled and secure, and when one "bites off more than they can chew" it really doesn't promote this.
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