Notes from the Piano

Is Reading Notation More Challenging For Students Today


Whilst there are a great many very talented musicians who do not read music because they play by ear or improvise, both of which are wonderful skills we should all seek to develop, those who want to play Classical music, will usually need to learn how to read notation.

Over the last decade or so I have noticed a marked change in a many young students’ willingness and ability to grasp reading notation. I have my own theories about why this might be but before sharing them I wanted to canvass the opinion of other teachers and hear about some of their experiences and theories to see if they were similar to my own. I spoke to many instrumental teaching colleagues both in person and on various online piano groups and forums.

Whilst several teachers said they had not noticed any change at all in the abilities or application of their students, many more agreed with me and said that they had noticed a decline in both the willingness and ability of reading notation in the last decade.

A lot of teachers attributed these difficulties to the instantaneous nature of the digital age in which we live, and which of course plays a huge part in today’s students’ lives and education, whereby knowledge is available at the click of a mouse and many of the steps previously required of working things out or finding information are no longer needed in as many aspects of education and are therefore more students are reluctant, or not as able to take the necessary steps required to read fluently and at the speed required.

Some teachers reported that these issues occurred more with the transfer students they had inherited, who had not been given the tools to develop solid reading skills, others mentioned previous teachers writing notes names on the score (my personal pet hate as it really does hold students back with their reading ultimately),using tutor methods which base initial learning around the middle C position, and students being allowed to move too quickly onto pieces which are beyond their reading skills before developing solid reading skills and firm foundations at each level, with the latter being driven mostly by parental and school pressure to get on ‘the exam conveyer belt’.

I would strongly agree with the scenarios mentioned above, I find that in private practice and also in some schools, there is often a lack of patience amongst many students with anything that is not instant, and therefore learning a system of reading notation and then applying it to the geography of the piano (or other instruments), once the music and scores becomes increasingly difficult some students lack the patience to learn to read two different staves alongside developing the co-ordination required to then apply the notation and all other performance directions, to the keyboard.

Dr Sally Cathcart ( has researched this topic extensively and argues that co-ordination skills often develop faster than notation reading skills, and therefore playing by ear and by rote whilst separately addressing and developing the skills required for reading notation are really important for young students’ pianistic development. It allows them to be able to really feel like they can play recognisable tunes and fosters intrinsic motivation and real enthusiasm for the piano whilst their reading skills are being developed. Sally also believes that the Kodaly approach of sound before the symbol really helps with the development of solid reading skills and strong musical foundations. Sally’s excellent new beginner tutor books for young pianists  ‘Ready to Play’ are based on this approach and are increasingly popular with teachers working with beginner students. This is great news for those of us who will inherit these students later on as they will have built those essential musical foundations which can then be built on.

It is no co-incidence that the students I teach at a specialist music school, who all learn both Kodaly and Dalcroze before learning an instrument, as well as continuing these classes alongside their instrumental lessons whilst in the Junior Department, seem to find reading notation and applying it to their instrument relatively easy. I believe that this is because they are having a thorough musical education by learning the sound before the symbol, and really developing a strong sense of pitch, rhythm, and pulse before they play a note and then the learning is ‘scaffolded’ once they begin their instrumental lessons.

I also believe that the other reason that these students read so well is because they play a huge amount of music at each level of learning and the focus is on performance, not exams.

Students are encouraged to perform in the weekly concerts we hold and receive positive feedback on their performance, it is an inclusive and supportive environment which music as communication and for sharing at the heart of the learning, rather than for passing tests. Students can of course take exams if they want to and many do but they are not the focus of learning but rather a small and optional part, the focus is on becoming a good musician and developing their own musical personalities.

Not all our students will go on to become professional musicians, but it is my great hope that they will grow up to love playing the piano, listening to music, attending concerts and that they will think of music as something life enriching to share with others rather than a battle to be fought with the score, with the instrument.

I notice that with many adult returners, there is often a tension, and some are almost engaged in a war with the instrument, having given up because of circumstances similar to those described above and now want to return to ‘conquer’ it. Of course, this leads to physical tension in the playing and frustration and yet these same adults are often willing to invest time and money to engage in this ‘battle’.

Can some difficulties in the learning of reading notation be attribute to the digital age? In my opinion I do think it may be a contributory factor but looking at the comments received alongside my own experiences I feel quite strongly that patience and pressure are the main issues here and much of that pressure comes from parents and some educational establishments who see exams as the main goal in piano playing rather than stepping stones on what can be a life enriching musical journey in the hands of a good teacher, willing student and parents who are respectful and supportive of the that, but it is a journey which cannot be rushed.

There are many unanswered questions in education, and for me this is one of those questions, but it is imperative that we keep asking ourselves and our colleagues those questions, that we stay interested and curious in order to strive to give our students the best possible teaching and musical foundations that we can.



Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.