Does This School Teach How to Read Music?


Absolutely!  Reading music is a fundamental skill.  At the beginning of Suzuki Book 1, we learn to read music using the solfege system:  We learn our "Do-Re-Mi's and 1-2-3's."  After the the first 15 lessons, we begin learning to read standard staff notation (those dots on the lines). 

Not only that, we learn how to write down the music we hear (transcription) and how to compose music ourselves.

"Why wait for fifteen lessons before learning staff notation?"  When we learn our native languages, first we learn to speak, then we learn our letters, and finally we learn how to read and spell.  We never tell a child, "No, dear, don't try to talk yet.  First you must learn how to read."  Can you imagine such a thing?  

The same is true with learning music.  Like languages, music has tones, patterns, rhythms, volume changes (dynamics), high sounds and low sounds.  Although music cannot convey meaning, such as, "The sky is blue," or "Please bring me a glass of water," it can convey emotion.  Interestingly, scientific studies have shown that we humans use the same brain-processing centers for developing ability in music as we do in hearing, speaking and writing a language.

As the student shows reading readiness in the early lessons, we begin incorporating more and more reading and music-writing into the lessons.  By the time we are ready for Lesson 16, all the skills necessary for reading music are in place.  So, with Lesson 16, we begin using the entire Grand Staff.  Not just two or three notes:  the entire Grand Staff.  Although we do reinforce learning by working on small sections of the staff at a time, we begin reading the same way we began playing the piano:  With all the available notes, and with musical, enjoyable songs.  This is much more fun and interesting for students!


"I've heard, though, that Suzuki students aren't good readers."   Unfortunately, in the United States, Suzuki is often taught in a way that leads to poor reading skills.  However, Dr. Suzuki never intended this.  When he toured the United States in the early 1970s with his phenomenally young, skilled students, he did so because he was raising money for his school back in Japan.  

When an American company approached him with an offer, he trustingly sold all his rights to the development of the American version of the Suzuki method.  What developed in America is very different from what developed in Japan and Europe.  Perhaps because of language barriers, Americans did not realize that Dr. Suzuki's method was not based solely on ear training.

The evidence shows that Dr. Suzuki believed that training the eyes to read music was just as important as training the ears and hands to hear and "speak" music.  Dr. Suzuki was a European-trained musician.  Although born and raised in Japan, he travelled to Germany as a very young man and received his advanced training there.  He prided himself on the ability of his students to read music.  

Once, he gave a written copy of the difficult Vivaldi concerto for two violins to two of his teenaged students, with only one and a half days to learn it before they were to perform it on a live radio show!  The students were completely unafraid, and saw it as a lark.  Relying not only on their musicality from ear training--but also on their excellent reading skills--the students practiced hard...and pulled off the stunt successfully.  (Source:  Nourished by Love, by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, pp. 30-32.)



"So, are you saying that Suzuki is not supposed to be just an ear-training method?"  Yes, precisely.  Dr. Suzuki's greatest contribution to music education actually was his intuitive guess that learning music could be made easier and more natural by treating it like learning a language:  first we learn to hear and speak music (i.e., how to imitate musical sounds, and how to reproduce them again and again), and then we learn how to read and spell music (read and write musical notation on paper).  It was Dr. Suzuki's intention that students be both fluent speakers and fluent readers.

Dr. Suzuki also theorized that it would be easier for very young children to learn this way, while they are still in the midst of learning to talk, count, and read.  He was the first to promote the idea that very young children can and should be given music lessons, in a fun, developmentally-appropriate way.

He was correct.  

Interestingly, even though our ability to learn languages is best at an early age, it is never too late to start learning music with the Suzuki method.  Older students and adults do very well with this method.  Thank goodness, learning music is far easier than learning a second language.

"I thought music study was hard.  What makes it easier?"  It is easier when we take things step by step.  First we begin with training the ear because it is the foundation for studying music, just as it is for learning a language.  We also begin learning the "numbers" for music (solfege), so that we can easily recognize which notes are going up, and which notes are going down.  This completely demystifies music:  it cracks the code:  the student goes home from the first lesson already able to play a simple, real song.  

With so-called traditional methods, reading music notation (those "dots") is introduced at the first lesson.  This creates a problem:  the student needs to focus on learning too many skills at once, so his first piano pieces can only be very boring.  Many students (including this teacher!) have sat through their first lessons wondering why they get to play just five keys in the middle of the piano, when there are so many fun-sounding keys all over.  "Surely," the students think, "it will be forever before I get to play anything fun."  No wonder the drop-out rate for piano in the United States is so high!  However, lessons taught in the Lichtenstein Piano School allow the student to play all over the keyboard from the very first lesson.

Incidentally, most of the "traditional" methods date only from the 1940s, or the 1920s at the earliest.  They are not the methods that produced Mozart, Beethoven, or any of the great composers:  the great composers all learned using the solfege method, with emphases on ear training, transcription, transposition, and being able to complete a figured bass (using chord theory and improvisation skills).  What we teach in the Lichtenstein Piano School is this truly traditional method that produced the great flowering of the 1700s and 1800s--the Musical Age.

"What about those newer piano books?  They look fun."  Some more-recent piano methods have tried to return to the idea of teaching children to play music ("speak") before they learn how to read.  This is a good thing.  Unfortunately, they try to accomplish this good thing in a dumbed-down way.  The new-style methods spend the first many lessons, or perhaps the entire first book, with the student playing black keys identified by "floating notes" on the page.  The floating notes are actually fairly hard to read, because they have no ladder-lines for reference points.  Students also quickly become bored with the black-note pieces, because they are not musically pleasing on their own.  So, even though these newer methods are trying to overcome the problems of a too-early emphasis on reading, they tend to discourage the students from really listening to their playing.  Speaking from our experience, the students are excited when they first receive these bright, colorful books.  Then their enthusiasm wanes as they work on the strange-sounding pieces.  (We no longer use them for students.)

"Well, perhaps those methods aren't so fun, after all, but is there anything really wrong with them?"   Yes.  Both of these recent approaches, the reading-only method and the floating-note method, lead to two even bigger problems:  First, most of their students never grasp the basics of how music really works, even though the books include music theory lessons.  So, the students do not learn how to make up their own songs, nor how to easily fix their mistakes during performance (which greatly lessens stage-fright), nor how to simplify a complex score to make it easier to play (this is like making their own arrangement of a piece).   Second, most of their students do not learn how to play by ear, transpose, or listen for what their piano-playing really sounds like.

"What do you mean, 'What their piano-playing really sounds like?' "  The piano is capable of producing many tones, harsh or pleasing.  In our studio, we teach students to make a tone that is pleasing to the ear.  They learn the music "code" so they can play any melody they want.  They also learn to play good-sounding music.  Parents are happier, and students play longer--maybe turning piano-playing into a life-long enjoyment.


"So, how do you teach students to read notes, and when do you start?"  Beginning in Suzuki Book 1, we use the Stewart Method to introduce note-reading via the solfege system (Do-Re Mi's and 1-2-3's).  Specifically, we use what is called "Moveable Do" (pronounced DOE) and Kodaly hand signs.  We also use a numerical solfege system, which employs the numbers 1-7, with high-dot and low-dot numbers to represent neighboring octaves.  These solfege systems provide such a firm, foundational understanding of music, that transcription and transposition become easy for the student — even for the beginning student. 

Then, in Lesson 16, we use our solfege knowledge to fly quickly through reading the entire Grand Staff and ledger lines (in other words, all the musical notes that can be written on a page).  In addition, we develop a basic familiarity with all musical clefs.  Because we are so familiar with the tones of the scale from our solfege work, notereading is easy.

Beginning midway through Suzuki Book 1, we further teach students to read and interpret music using the Artistry at the Piano and the Piano Adventures series.  For very visual students under age 9, we may use a different method to teach reading instead.  The choice depends on which method the instructor feels fits the student's learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.).


"What is this solfege you mention so often?"  Solfege (pronounced SOLE-fej) is the numerical basis of music.  Basically, anyone who can count to the number 7 can learn to read music.  We can use the numbers 1 through 7 to represent the notes (or, more accurately, the "scale degrees").  Or we can use the Italian solfege syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do  (pronounced "doe, ray, me, fah, sew, la, tea, doe")


Many students are already familiar with these Italian solfege syllables from having watched the movie, The Sound of Music.  Variations on these syllables exist.  For instance, so is often called sol, and ti is an American version of the European si. 

The solfege syllables show function within the key, and the relationships between pitches, rather than absolute pitch.  For absolute pitch, we use the first seven letters of the English alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G.  For more information, please see the Wikipedia articles on solfege and the Kodaly Method.  For an excellent discussion of absolute pitch and relative pitch, and moveable do versus fixed do, please see the article, "The Use of Solfeggio in Sightsinging."  (Solfeggio = Solfege)

However, for those who just want to learn to play, sing, and read music, there is no need to fear.  Music is fun.  All we actually need to know is how to count to 7. 

What about all those dots and lines on a musical page?  Relax.  They are a visual graph of the notes of the scale (1 through 7), with indicators to show beat and rhythm.  Have you seen an (x,y) graph, perhaps in math class?  In written music, the x-axis shows Time, and the y-axis shows Pitch (how high or low the note is).  The scale degrees 1 through 7 repeat higher, or lower, giving us a wide range of notes...but the number of basic notes is only 7.  

Learning to read music can seem like a scary task.  When we practice with solfege first, learning to read and write music becomes easy and fun.  Yes, it really does!


"What about someone who already knows how to read music?"  For transfer students and older students, we study simultaneously on two tracks:  In the ear-training track, we use Suzuki Book 1 for ear training and solfege training.  In the sight-training track, we use Artistry at the Piano, Piano Adventures, and classical methods such as Burgmuller and Czerny.  Together, the two tracks make an incomparable team for producing pianists who can play music, not just notes.


"Why do you do this?  It's so different from what other studios do."  Well, yes, it is different.  It harkens back to the teaching methods that produced Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and all the other composers of the Golden Era. 

Our goal is to nurture pianists who can 

  • Play in social situations,

  • Approach performances confidently and happily,

  • Speak in public clearly and well, 

  • Play equally well "by ear" or with written music, and

  • Transpose a piece for a singer whose range is higher or lower than what is written on the page.  

To be able to play at a party, or for a group of friends, transforms piano-playing from a lonely hobby...into a relationship-building skill.

Piano-playing as a life-long delight.  What could be better?