Memorizing, Reading, Theory, Mental Play, Absolute Pitch

The teacher must choose, at an early stage, whether the student should be taught to play from memory or learn to read music. This choice is necessitated by the fact that the details of the teaching program and how the teacher interacts with the students depend on it. The Suzuki violin method emphasizes playing from memory at the expense of reading, especially for youngsters, and this is the best approach for piano also. It is easier to practice reading after you can play reasonably well. The reason for this order of learning is simple; it is also the way children learn language: they first learn to speak, then to read. The abilities to speak and to make music are natural evolutionary traits that we all have; reading is something that was added later as a consequence of our civilization. Learning to speak is simply a process of memorizing all the sounds and logical constructs of each language. Therefore, reading is more "advanced" and less "natural", and therefore cannot logical precede memory. For example, there are many concepts in memory that can never be written down, such as color, playing with authority and confidence, etc. A single "crescendo" indication can be played in a large number of ways. You cannot "read" a crescendo indication unless you have heard many crescendos and know what they sound like.

However, reading should not be totally neglected in the beginning. It is only a matter of priority. Since music notation is simpler than any alphabet, young children should be able to learn to read music even before they can learn to read books. Thus reading should be taught from the very beginning, but only enough to read music for practicing a piece and memorizing it. Reading should be encouraged as long as it does not interfere with playing from memory. This means that, once a piece is memorized, the music should not be used for daily practice. However, the teacher must make sure that this lack of emphasis on reading does not result in a poor reader who automatically memorizes everything and can't read. There is a tendency in most beginners to become either good readers (and poor memorizers) or vice versa, because when you become good at one, you need less of the other. By monitoring the student carefully, a teacher can prevent the student from becoming a poor reader or a poor memorizer. Parental help is often necessary for this monitoring to succeed because the teacher is not always there when the student is practicing. In fact, many parents unwittingly create poor memorizers or readers by helping their children out instead of forcing them to practice their weaker skills. Because becoming a poor reader or memorizer happens over a long period of time, usually many years, there is ample time to detect the trend and correct it. A negligible number of people are born good or bad readers or memorizers. The vast majority became good memorizers or good readers because of the way they learned throughout their life.

Reading is an indispensable teaching tool for teachers; the teacher's job can be made easier if the student can be taught to read. Teachers who emphasize reading are certainly justified because of the enormous amount of information that is contained in even the simplest printed music, and practically every beginning student will miss a large fraction of that information. Even advanced pianists often return to the music score to make sure that they haven't missed anything. Very often, you have to improve your skill to a certain level before you can fully execute all the markings on the score so that, in the beginning, some of the markings may be effectively meaningless; thus you need the score at every stage of development. Therefore, there is no question that reading is essential. In addition, learning to read is not a simple task; not only do you have to learn the complex language of the music score, but you also have to learn to recognize and execute the instructions in real time. This is why reading must be taught from the very beginning. However, too many teachers depend too much on reading, which causes confusion among the students because the students are more interested in learning piano than simplifying the teacher's task. Asking a student to read the score is not the most efficient way to correct mistakes. All these conflicting factors cause great confusion and controversy in piano pedagogy about whether is it better to teach memory or reading. Clearly, the best program is one based on memory, but with enough reading training so that the student does not become a poor reader.

How much reading training is enough? The normal amount of reading needed to learn your new pieces is generally sufficient. Especially for beginners, it does not pay to embark upon a reading program just to be able to read (because your fingers can't play them anyway), although the initial slow reading speed can be awfully frustrating. A major learning trick in piano pedagogy is to learn several skills simultaneously, especially because many of them take a long time to learn. Thus memorizing, reading, theory, etc., can all be learned simultaneously, saving you a lot of time in the long run.

As students advance, a distinction should be made between compositions that they "sight read" and those that they memorize. "Sight reading" is used here in a loose terminology to mean playing music by looking at the score, without memorizing it. All significant lesson pieces should be memorized. These are pieces that the students can be expected to perform for an audience. As the students advance, therefore, they will acquire two types of repertoire; those they memorize and those they sight read, such as easy pieces and accompaniments. In later stages, the student may decide to learn true sight reading (section 11 above), which is the ability to play music, that they had never heard before, by reading a music score that they had not previously seen. Thus every student should have a program for technical development based on memorization and a sight reading program.

You can never teach too much music theory (solfege), notation, dictation, etc. Learning theory helps the students to acquire technique, memorize, understand the structure of the composition, and perform it correctly. It will also help with improvisation and composition. It should be noted that, statistically, the majority of successful piano students will end up composing music. Modern music (pop, jazz, etc.) nowadays uses very advanced musical concepts and the underlying theory is helpful for understanding chord progressions, music structure and improvisation. Therefore, there are advantages to learning both classical and modern music. Modern music provides contemporary theory and helps develop rhythm, and also appeals to a wider audience. It is easier to learn performance skills and to suppress stage fright using modern music, and learning both classics and pop greatly increases the size of your audience.

Mental play should be taught from the very beginning in order to train the students to play music in their minds all the time. If this is done at the correct pitch, young students who have been sufficiently exposed to music will acquire perfect pitch after only a few lessons with no effort. This is a good time to identify those students who have little idea of pitch and to devise programs to help them. Advanced students automatically develop mental playing skills because they are so necessary; however, if they are taught from the beginning, it will speed their learning rates for everything else. If mental playing is not taught, the students may not even realize that they are doing it, and not develop it properly. Moreover, because they are not aware of what they are doing, they will tend to neglect mental playing as they get older and their brains get bombarded with other pressing matters. As they neglect the mental playing, they will lose their perfect pitch, and their ability to perform with ease.