Sight reading is the ability of a musician to spontaneously play any piece of music put in front of him/her. Traditionally, to be able to read music, as in the actual standard music notation, is the only way to learn a musical instrument. In the case of piano lessons, every lesson is very much focused on building the reading skill of the student so much so that sometimes, when a wrong note is played, instead of asking the student, “Did you HEAR the wrong note that you just played?” the teacher reprimands the student by saying, “Can’t you SEE that you have played the wrong note?!”
If we acknowledge that music is essentially the art of listening, that is, we appreciate the sound of music via our auditory senses, then placing too much emphasis on reading music is not exactly the best way to motivate a student-musician, especially young children and adolescents. Young people nowadays are exposed to so much music blasting away from the shopping malls to the school bus, from the piped-in music in a tiny little washroom stall to your friendly convenience store down the road, and not to mention their iPods or iPhones or laptops, for that matter. Their ears are being musically stimulated every day!
In my opinion, a student who studies pop and/or jazz music should be taught sight reading in conjunction with ear training, not as a substitute (as in those “play by ear only” courses), or the kind of classical piano teacher who only teaches ear training for music exams. The type of sight reading advocated initially should be the ability to read chord symbols and rhythmic durations based on familiar songs. As all contemporary music can be broken down to chords and rhythms, the student will be able to “hear, see and play” the music they have heard countless times. They will be able to sing or hum along to the rhythms of the chord progression, taking away the early frustration of learning to read pitch notes and finding them on the keyboard!
Eventually, the student will be eager to learn how to play the melody to their favorite song, not just sing or hum it or have someone else, like the teacher, play it. This is when the slow introduction of pitch note reading will come in. I have found this to be a natural transition with my own young students – and also those young-at heart! In fact, teaching note-reading on the first lesson is a positive killjoy for many students nowadays. The sheer fact that they can start playing chords and making “sophisticated-sounding” rhythms on the piano to the likes of Jason Mraz’s catchy I’m Yours or Michael Buble’s latin-inspired Everything is a surefire way to keep them happily practicing and looking forward to their piano lessons. No more boring lessons or teary students that need to be dragged to the piano!
So, in short, yes, sight reading is important for pop/jazz pianists, but start off by teaching them to read chord symbols and rhythmic notations. Then slowly and surely introduce the students to pitch notations and marry all the musical elements together!
I have been teaching piano for more than 20 years. Although classically-trained, I have always loved contemporary music. I grew up in a household filled with all types of music, from classical to jazz, Pavarotti to Sinatra, Goldberg to Grusin, pop, rock, etc. Currently residing in Singapore, I conduct private piano lessons in pop and jazz music to students of all ages, ranging from music enthusiasts, piano teachers to professional musicians. I also write a blog especially for pianists who find themselves rhythmically and harmonically challenged, and also on other interesting music and piano-related stuff.
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