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  • Dima Tahboub

Note Reading Difficulties: Reasons and Solutions!

Updated: Nov 18, 2019


During the course of your teaching, you most probably have had at least one student who found reading music a challenge, and would start memorizing the piece the moment you started teaching it, even before first learning to play it properly. In many cases, this piece would end up being memorized and played robotically from memory with no expression and with many mistakes in rhythm, pitch and dynamics. In addition to that, those mistakes were almost always very difficult to correct. Even worse than all of that, if the student left this piece for a few weeks to work on something else, playing it again would mean re-learning it all over again from no matter how much time you had previously spent teaching it.


In order to be able to eliminate such problems from your studio, you have to first understand the origin of the problem and the reason behind it. Once you identify the problem, it will become much easier to find a solution.

The student's reluctance to read music is most commonly due to one of these issues:

  • The presence of a learning disability such as: Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), ASD, Visual Perception / Visual Motor deficit:

If this is your case, you have to teach to the student's ability and strength instead on focusing on the disability and the weakness. This will mean that in some cases you will have to put the traditional teaching method aside and use a totally different method that will serve your student best.

It is important to keep in mind that even if two students have the same label (dyslexia for example), this doesn't mean that the the same approach is guaranteed to work with both of them. It is much more effective if you treat each student as a separate individual with different needs, challenges, and abilities regardless of the labels they come with.

You have to make sure that you have your foundation secure and that your student has the skills needed for the concept you are trying to teach. If your student has a problem with identifying patterns for example, it might take her a longer time to learn the names of the piano keys.

  • Auditory learner who relies on memory and ear instead of reading:

If your student is an auditory learner with a good ear, the traditional method will not always work. I noticed that students with a very good ear and students with perfect pitch find note reading more challenging. If I play a new piece for them, more often than not, they will start guessing the notes on the piano trying to recreate the sounds than actually read the music.

  • Writing note names on the sheet:

Writing the notes names is probably the worst thing you can do if you are trying to teach your student how to read music. When we play the piano we do not read A, B, C and so on, we are actually reading intervals and patterns moving up and down the staff. If you have letter names on the sheet, you will prevent your student from acquiring this complex skill and instead she will keep reading letters instead.

  • Not learning something new every week:

Reading music is a skill that needs practice, if your student is playing the same piece over and over again for many weeks, perfecting it for a recital or exam, then she most probably is playing it from memory and is not reading from the sheet anymore.

To be good at reading music, you have to incorporate reading new pieces every lesson as a practice, short pieces only learnt for this purpose are absolutely fine. Better still, if you give short pieces to your students as homework to work them out by themselves at home. Be careful with the leveling of these pieces, you don't want them to be difficult to read, always keep practice pieces easy, a little easier than what your student can play.

  • Teaching approach:

Be creative in your teaching approach, don't be afraid to ditch the traditional method if it is not working. Highlighting the G line on the treble clef and the F line on the bass clef solved the problem of note reading for a number of my students. With a colored pencil we would highlight both the G and F lines and circle the G's and the F's on the corresponding lines for a few lessons. A few months later, the concept clicked and we didn't have to highlight anything any more.

Ask your student to explain what they see when they look at the sheet and try to see it through her eyes. Many times the student will have the answer to his own problem.

If you have a reluctant reader, here are the perfect primer books that will guide your student step by step until ready and confident to start on a regular method book of your choice Download Here for Free

For more teaching tips and ideas...

How to Successfully Introduce Note Reading to Students With Special Needs.

How to teach piano to dyslexic learners: Step 1, strategies that actually work with my students.

How to teach piano to dyslexic learners: Step 2


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