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Roadblocks to Reading: Common Problems and How to Address Them

Once our students have developed some proficiency in the areas of posture, tone production, and musical expression we need to teach them how to read music. I usually start serious work on this when they are playing the Minuets in Book One so that we can work from the score in Book Two. I’ve noticed three roadblocks that hinder a student’s progress toward reading fluency.

Roadblock #1 - Gaps in knowledge of the basics

Careful introduction of basic concepts is crucial. Students become confused and lose confidence when understanding of a key concept is missing or incomplete. Here are two examples:

Staff Confusion

Students may look at the stem rather than the head of a note or have trouble seeing the difference between staff locations.

In our book Reading Music: A Guide for Suzuki Students, we introduce the note symbol, staff lines and spaces, pitch direction and ledger lines, before any specific violin note locations are introduced. The explanations are followed by activities for practice and assessment of understanding.

Rhythmic Disorientation

Students neglect to establish the beat or use the time signature as a tool to help them decipher the rhythm.

In Reading Music, the concepts of beat, rhythm and meter are introduced, practiced and then applied as note values are presented. Students work through rhythmic examples using a system we call 'The Seven Steps to Great Rhythm' which emphasizes relating the rhythm to the beat and review of previously learned note values.

Our primary goal in creating Reading Music was to present music reading concepts one at a time, providing clear explanations and many opportunities to apply and absorb the skills through playing, writing, movement and games.

Roadblock #2 – Lack of consistent practice

Once reading instruction has begun, students need to use their new skills at every lesson and home practice session. As with review, if we don’t work on it in the lesson, they probably won’t work on it at home. Reading Music provides clear explanations so that parents can learn along with their students and help them at home.

Roadblock #3 – Use it or Lose It

After instruction in the basics, students need daily opportunities to apply their knowledge to new music. I made two mistakes early on.

The first was to assume that because we had covered the skills, my student could now read and I could move on to other things. Not true! If we don’t keep introducing new music to read, especially in the early stages, their new and fragile grasp on these skills will disappear.

The second mistake was thinking that they were getting enough reading practice by using the score to learn the Suzuki repertoire. Since they have been learning by ear up to this point and are familiar with these pieces because they have been listening to them, they will rely more on their ear than on the page.

My students enjoy the following books:

My Trio Book by Kirsten Wartberg

I start with the 3rd Violin part which presents a very simple bass line harmony. This volume is a good confidence builder. Students love to accompany their teacher or siblings on these familiar pieces. After working through some of the 3rd Violin part, I move on to the 2nd Violin part where the harmonies are more challenging.

Royal Conservatory Music Development Program Violin Levels One & Two

These books contain very beautiful and enjoyable musical selections in a variety of styles.

Shifting by Yaakov Geringas

Learn the pieces in first position and then add the shifting.

Good for students in Books Four and Five

Remember to address posture! The music stand can wreak havoc on a student’s set up.

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