Reading Music, NLD Style


There are many aspects to being either a student musician or a professional musician.  One can be strong at, or even exceptional at reading music, yet not express the heart of music.  Still, musical ideas leading to musicality can be taught.  On the other hand, one can be exceptionally expressive with music naturally, yet have difficulty with learning and maintaining enough music to share with others, or, in other words have difficulty becoming a functional musician at even an elementary level.  This difficulty be caused and/or aggravated in part by the most common approaches to teaching music today.  Still, there have been teachers who applied efficient and effective means of studying written music through the years.  The goal of the music teacher is to help each student achieve a well rounded approach to music.

There are many aspects of music. This particular discussion deals with various skills required for learning to read music.  Since not all skills are difficult for an NLDer, the question which should be addressed is: which skills should any given NLDer pursue.  Not all NLDers should be required to push through to fluency in reading, but many more NLDers than might have been thought of before can learn fluent reading at various levels.  Also, even  NLDers who become the type of musicians who rely on their 'musical ear' benefit from understanding the written and theoretical concepts as much as they are able.  For example, my son, who does not read fluently at this time, is able to teach beginning violin students an effective and efficient approach to reading music at both the
violin and the piano.  Other examples of potential benefits would be 1) a more easily trained ear, and 2) a better appreciation for particular affects intended by a composer.

Here is a little about my own experiences, and what I've learned about teaching reading in light of those experiences.

Due to my own struggles resulting from NLD shadow combined with poor teaching, reading music was a significant struggle for me, but I was quite expressive, musically speaking.  I did almost accomplish fluency in reading when I graduated, but then I set aside my studies for years. Now, the process which almost helped me to attain reading fluency is being reapplied, with growing positive results.

I ended up with a major in piano performance, which is a long story in itself, as I intended to be a dance therapist.  To cut to a short story:

1)  I always wanted to know certain things about music, so I continued learning about them in college.
2)  When my feet gave out, I was closer to a piano degree than anything else, so I at least completed a degree, that being in piano performance.

The point of which is that I have had the full intention of developing a piano method which would make music reading much more accessible to more students, AND make the practice of excellent teaching more accessible to less knowledgeable teachers. 

Now, the question which resulted in this discussion was about reading music for the guitar.  There are some similarities and some differences. In my most recent research about both newer and older modes of music education, I found some materials that I think would be beneficial for any student if he should choose to persist in learning to play, and especially to grapple with reading music.  The most recent gem is a book called _Mrs. Curwen's Pianoforte Method:  The Teacher's Guide_, which is a handbook for Mrs. Curwen's method.   In it, she has a well founded approach to learning the staff and the notes on it by reflex.  She also mentions studying the various aspects of music separately, which I have been instructing my students to do.  [as a disclaimer, I do not appreciate her ages' terminology in reference to students who struggle with given skills, but her approach with them is still gentle and prepares the student to make progress incrementally and foundationally.]

My NLDer (now 14 yo) does play the violin very well.  He learned via the Suzuki method, which is a method which helps even very young students to learn to play somewhat by ear, though it does not exactly achieve well rounded ear training.  He has also learned excellent touch at the piano, as well as basic music theory (chordal structures within scales as they are used in music).

Now he finally has enough desire to master the process of learning a piece of music from the page.  I do not encourage him to learn to 'sight read' at this time.  If he ever gets close enough to that, we'll let all of you know, but for now, he has finally learned how to read well enough to teach himself a piece from the Suzuki Volume II literature.  I am very proud of him.

He intends to move on to reading more fluently on the violin since it is only reading one note at a time, but has not 'given up' on learning to read at the piano.  He believes that there are still benefits to be found for him in studying more about how to read piano music.

As for your son, there are specific suggestions which I believe would help him IF he has enough desire to patiently, and small step by small step break down this process and drill each step.  Here they are in general:

1)  Practice reading rhythms separately from music...tapping or etc. There is an advanced book for this which would challenge any musician, which was written by the composer/pedagogue Himdemith.  There is also a elementary level introduction to rhythmic notation in a book called
"Keyboard Capers" which I know is carried by The Elijah Co. (do a search on-line if it interests you).  It might seem insultingly simple, but it is the most accessible method for teaching rhythmic notation that I know of.  Notably, applying this method's terminology while playing employs
the use of speech, thus the abdominal muscles while playing, both of which are good for any student's focus and attempts at good tone production on any instrument.  In addition to that, the use of speech while playing might be especially powerful for NLD students.  If your son can clap a steady rhythm in light of basic notation (within measures, using quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes, dotted half notes and whole notes), then he would not need this second resource, and would be ready for the significant challenge of the first book mentioned.  Still, finding a way to 'speak the rhythm' while he reads will prove helpful. The suggested method of approaching the Hindemith book is to follow the book from front to back at a slow tempo (or as far as a given student wishes to be challenged).  Then, to go back through a second time using a fast tempo.  With an NLD student, perhaps several trips through the book, with small increases in tempo each time in order to gradually achieve the higher speeds, might be more in line.

2)  Solfege work can help your son learn to 'hear' what he sees.  When you see the words of this post on your computer screen, you know most of those words, and, even if you have NLD, can hear those words in your mind.  Your son can learn how to apply this same skill to music via solfege.  There are people who can look at music and 'hear' it.  This is a skill which can be taught.  Since most students do not need this to 'enjoy' music lessons, this is rarely ever taught to young students in my country.  However, even young children can learn this skill from very short vocal solfege drills on a regular basis.  This can be taught before an instrument is ever in the hands of a child, and that would be my personal preference for all children.  I personally advocate the use of solfege with a 'fixed do' (pronounced 'dough') and could recommend materials for that.  [I am using Dannhauser.  Solfege des Solfeges Book I from Schirmer's Library, Vol. 1289, again, going through slowly with slower tempos the first time, memorizing the first exercises introducing scales by 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc., then 'sight reading' the following exercises... After finishing the book, we plan to go through quickly a second time with faster tempos.]  You might be able to find a local choir director who is willing to work with your son using a 'moveable do'. Either could be effective.  I do address 'relative pitch' which is emphasized with a moveable do in a different format.  Though it is not altogether necessary to do that.

3)  Study the staff in relation to the keyboard, as it is very visual and spatially obvious.  The visual experience at the keyboard, if practiced step by step by the methodology of the Curwen method would be effective for your son.  The handbook mentioned above would be sufficient.  If you had trouble grasping the concepts in the book, you could employ the help of a local music teacher, and apply the prescribed exercises with that teacher's help and/or yourself at home.

4)  Then take the staff studies that were applied to the keyboard and apply them to the guitar.  By the time you had managed the exercises at the keyboard, you would understand how to adapt them to the guitar logically enough.

5)  In the meantime, playing by ear is not going to ruin your son's ABILITY to learn to read.  The question remains whether it might discourage his desire to read music, but in my son's experience, learning to be an excellent student musician is what encouraged him to mount his horse, and ready for the battle to learn the process of reading written music as well as he can.  In other words, I would encourage your son to learn to play guitar as was already discussed in previous posts, just
using chord symbols prepared for him for now, and/or listening to music and figuring out how to imitate it.

6)  If these things fall in place, and he wants to make chord charts for himself from music (say music written for piano, or to a melody that he writes himself), he can either do so relying on his ear and previous experience with chords, AND/OR he can study chord and scale theory and how that applies to writing music.

7)  I think that if your son runs into specific problems, that it will be because the myriad skills need to be broken down into smaller size pieces, not because he can't do them in larger pieces, but because he will need more put into words than most students.  This piece of the puzzle can be vital.  [in my son's case, I knew enough about music to fill in the verbal blanks about the early lessons of violin playing, but I did not know how to put vibrato into words....  my son played with vibrato, then lost it, because he had not yet put it into words....  that was a two year struggle, which his teacher and I broke off our joint support for my son over....  the teacher considered the struggle all my
fault, and would not try to help me explain vibrato to my son..... perhaps, now that my son has put vibrato together, he could study with a teacher again.....  next he hopes to work on Irish music though, which will require a different teacher ]

8)  BTW, you mentioned reading for the guitar, but I know that in learning to read piano music, some students read from the top note down, which is less efficient than reading from the bottom up.  Reading from the top down occurs naturally for some students because they are 'clueing in' to the melody the most.  However that approach is inefficient.  If one reads more slowly already, then anything inefficient isn't effective. For one thing, music is written harmonically from the bottom up in order to compliment the melody, and reading from the bottom up helps the student to grasp the harmonic nature of reading piano music.  It's like, if one is drilled in the skills of reading the notes of each given beat harmonically (as a chord) then the student can read a chord instead of reading individual notes.  That easily compares to reading words one letter at a time vs. reading all of the letters of one word as one word.

Reading each letter or each note individually is simply inefficient. NLDers should not do that.  They should employ only the most efficient reading habits.  For another thing, reading the bottom first aids the student to press all the way through to the melody (which is usually in the top voice), whereas, reading from the melody first does not engage as many students in reaching their mind all the way to the bottom note effectively. From what I understand about all reading, this would also
factor into analyzing or reading music that contains more than one note at a time, no matter what the instrument.  In other words, please teach all NLDers to read from the bottom note up when more than one note is being played at a time.  The materials that my college theory teacher used to learn the skill of reading by chords were early chord primers and any music written in similar format to hymns.  He would use a metronome, and say the names of each chord away from a keyboard.  I never went through this process before, but am beginning to do so now.  It is amazingly effective.

9)  Reading should be practiced by reading something new daily. Sometimes that can simply be four measures of a piece that one read four measures of the day before, but it should be something new each practice session.  The same college theory professor mentioned above suggested that all weak readers should go back, collect all of the most basic beginning readers that they could find, and read through them slowly; then read through them quickly, then move on to more difficult books,
reading through slowly, then  quickly, and so on.  It is amazingly powerful to simply practice reading, even for an NLDer, AFTER they have mastered a reflex response to any single note on the staff.

10)  The proper attitude of the student needs to be trained as well. That is very much the responsibility of the parent and the teacher.  The student must be patiently taught how to maintain a teachable spirit in order to benefit from music lessons effectively.  As teaching the skills of reading music notation to an NLDer requires much time, effort, and often money, the student must be willing to take on the responsibility of learning.  Obviously, there is truth to the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.  Still, this truth must be balanced by the fact that many NLDers appear to be unwilling to learn until a given skill has been broken down into enough pieces which are then verbally described as many times as the student requires.  There is
a delicate balance here which is difficult to maintain.  Much maturity is required from the teacher and parent in these issues.

In summary, working various aspects of reading separately, then putting them together bit by bit is what I would suggest.

For my beginning piano students, as well as weak readers, I will be modifying the Curwen method based on new methods which leave a few of her teachings obsolete.  In spite of that, her work stands as exceptionally brilliant, and if applied by a knowledgeable instructor, is highly useful
still yet today for anyone struggling with reading music, or struggling in teaching reading skills.  Her method, IMHO, was established on a flawless foundation (well, I haven't studied it all yet, but what I have seen so far is brilliantly balanced and aids one in carefully progressing from skill to skill).

Lorraine Nessman