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Ideas on Learning

Teaching sight-reading to students with strong ears

My brother and I started violin at the same time. Because Greg is 3 years older, he jumped ahead of me quickly. But he made my learning easier.

As Greg practiced and performed songs just ahead of me, my ears got stronger and stronger. It is a phenomenon I see with students. I call it the ‘younger sibling effect’.

Greg’s practicing was benefiting me as much as him. It nearly allowed my sight-reading skills to go undeveloped.

In our family trio, in the youth symphony, in the summer camp orchestras, my brother, Greg, was always in the 1st violin section and I, the smallest violinist, was sitting in the 2nd violin section. I hated that I was seated where I couldn’t copy Greg.

2nd violin parts are typically the harmony to the 1st violin’s melody. My ears would want me to play the melody but my eyes (and the conductor) required me to play what was written in front of me. Were it not for years of playing harmony, I’d probably be useless as a sight-reader.

If I teach a student sight-reading, I use the same approach that forced me to learn to read. They learn all their melodies by ear, even the most challenging classical pieces. And they learn to read by playing harmonies and difficult-to-memorize exercises.

A few students have the ability to fake their way through the harmonies and exercises. When that happens, I give them a smile of appreciation. Nice try. Then I make them play their part backwards. They drop their heads in defeat. Foiled again!

Their strong ears, impressive memorization abilities and short-cut seeking instincts won’t keep these students from learning how to read. For I know all their clever tricks to avoid sight-reading. I spent a childhood perfecting them.


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