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Ideas on Learning

When (and if) to teach sight-reading

Sight-reading is a good, but not fundamental, skill for playing the violin. It is sort of like the GPS screens on cars. Helpful, but not required, for driving.

But unlike other skills (e.g. improvisation, vibrato), sight-reading has some negative impacts on how students learn and play music. Therefore, teachers have to think carefully when, if and how to teach this skill.

When — The window of opportunity for ear-development is wide open when children are very young. During these formative years, I feel like a farmer trying to get as many seeds in the ground before the planting season ends. Therefore, sight-reading waits patiently until the ear-development seeds are planted.

The window of opportunity for sight-reading does not open until kids are about 6-years-old — when they are able to track words on a page. That window stays open for a long time.

If — The average violin student plays music for approximately 100-150 hours in a year. That reality requires me to separate fundamental skills from supplemental skills. And the skills I regard as fundamental are the ones that enable young students to play with friends and family when they are adults.

Roughly speaking, if a student is playing violin more than a couple of hours a week, I teach them supplemental skills like sight-reading. But short of that level of commitment, I focus my time and energy on songs and ears.

That is the when and if of sight-reading. Next week, I’ll discuss the how.


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