Training the Eyes

Question: I have a few students who have great difficulty reading the notes on the staff. It has been brought to my attention that it may be due to a tracking problem which falls into the category of perhaps visual problems. Do you have any suggestions to help with this struggle or have knowledge that it relates to a tracking problem with their vision? Thanks so much for your input!

– Sally (Littleton, Colorado, USA)

Albert’s reply: Reading music at sight is an overwhelmingly complex task for many piano students. “Tracking problem” is a suitable term, but in most cases I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a visual problem.

In my experience, problems in sight reading stem from not recognizing just how multifaceted the task is. Sight reading piano music assumes that the player can recognize the notes on the two staves with two different clefs, immediately locate the corresponding keys on the keyboard, play all the notes in time – often involving multiple independent voices and multiple rhythms – and do so with the proper touch and articulation, at the right dynamic levels, and expressively at that. It’s no wonder most piano students struggle to read music.

More than anything, the solution is first to train the eyes to recognize the notes on the staff. This is the most basic step of all in reading music, yet more often than not it is overlooked. The test is simple: Can you immediately, without a moment’s hesitation, name any note on any staff, with any key signature? Until the student can name music notes as effortlessly as the letters in this sentence, he or she is doomed to struggle with reading music at the piano. No one can be expected to perform all the other tasks (simultaneously!) if the most basic and essential of tasks still poses difficulty.

This is a general formula for solving most any musical difficulty, in fact. I always break down the challenge into its component tasks and have students master each one at the requisite skill level before asking them to combine tasks, which often demand the simultaneous use of several faculties.

Because I dealt with this particular problem over and over again with my students, I designed my course on reading music to overcome this very difficulty. It systematically trains the eyes to recognize the notes on the staff, from points of reference to common patterns, both melodic and rhythmic. It would be ideal for your students to get to do the exercises under your guidance as their teacher. As a teacher, you’ll recognize the value of the exercises and their progression right away. I hope your students do as well!

Once your students are able to recognize any note on either staff immediately, if they are still having difficulty sight reading, it still may have to do with the eye. In that case, you can train students’ eyes by blocking the current measure that they are playing, which forces them to look ahead to the next measure. It goes without saying that you’ll need to use relatively simple music for this reading exercise. If your student has a habit of looking down at the keyboard, you can use a large, thick sheet of cardboard to block the view of the keyboard altogether.

I’ve found all of these methods to be very effective in training the eyes to read piano music. Wishing you and your students much success!

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