I have a student who, when he tries, can figure out what notes he's looking at on the score at a decent pace. He couldn't sit down and sight-read something fluidly, but the foundation is there.

The problem is that when he's trying to learn something new, these skills go out the window, and there's a lot of flailing and guessing until he hits the note that he remembers sounds right there.

This seems to specifically occur when there's a change in hand position. When he's reading intervals without having to move his hands, he does fine.

This issue occurs independent of any fingering issues.

What's a good strategy to address this? I'm particularly looking for tools that help him when he's learning music at home, not just in class.

  • 8
    My teacher rapped my cranium sharply with the butt end of a knout. Aside from minor neurological issues, it did me little harm. Of course, I do shriek at the sight of a piano. But to be fair I never liked pianos to begin with. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 19:32

6 Answers 6


I understand that anxiety can cause a kid to freak out a little and start "flopping" the fingers, but I won't allow it to continue. I stop them and maybe do one measure at a time, or even one note to the next note. I will ask them again to tell me the note names and the fingering if applicable, and have them play one note at a time. If they had been attempting the music both hands, I have them go down to one hand. The more they "flop", the more I need to step in and micro-manage the reading of the music. I have a pencil at all times, and with my beginners it is almost always pointing to each beat/part-of the beat as they learn a song. In this way, it helps them focus on that one note/set of notes, and I also am physically showing them what tempo I want them playing at. The pencil goes away as they become more secure in what they are doing.

I have a motto as a teacher: "painfully slow, so slow it hurts." If my students are playing too fast, I stop them and make them start again. I drill in the importance of practicing correctly. The muscles memorize movement, and the player needs to make sure to create a proper "groove" of movement so the nerve impulses from the brain to the finger move smoothly, automatically, and fast. But this "groove" cannot be created unless is is painstakingly formed slowly and correctly each time. I tell my students that if they are flopping their fingers around, that is what they are teaching their fingers to do. I reiterate that the brain is in charge. The brain needs to clearly tell the fingers what to do and then make sure the fingers "obey."

I also usually do not play the song first for my students if they need to read the music. I might play it after they struggle through reading it so they can hear how it sounds all put together.


Are you certain this student actually knows the locations of notes on the staff?

I'm thinking of my own students as they first learn a C clef. If the music moves by second or third, they know the pitches without difficulty. But a leap of a sixth always creates some hesitation until they get their bearings again. This unfortunately betrays the fact that they're only moving by intervals and that they don't actually know the pitch locations on the C clef.

It sounds like this is exactly what your student is doing; he's "reading intervals" (like my students moving by second or third) but then gets lost when he has to move his hands (like my students when they leap a sixth).

With only this information, I would recommend slowing down and really making sure they have immediate recognition of note names on the staff.


I see this all the time with my students. Most students are impatient. They want to rush through it because they don’t want to give it a lot of time. I think a percentage of them also play too fast in an effort to show me how smart they are.

Changing this involves a change in belief, which takes a long time to change.

Besides explanation, I have 2 practical approaches that are both effective: 1.) I put my finger on the page and tell them not to play past my finger as it moves, and I narrate what their doing and any challenges I see they’re going to run into, such as big jumps, hand shifts, or odd fingerings. 2.) I basically do the same as 1 but I’m at the keyboard playing with them instead of pointing.

I make them go back and re-do things they skip over, and if they’re truly being a hot mess, I make them stop what they’re doing, take a deep breath, and tell them that it’s hard to help them if they aren’t listening to me. If you always focus your comments / directions through the lens of helping with them, it’s very hard for them to argue with someone who only wants to make their life better.

Hope that helps.


this kind of reading in psychology is called dyslexia.


"Metacognition: Many children with Dyslexia act impulsively. More often than not, they struggle with planning in advance and thinking about their consequences."

(I should write a book about "sheet music dyslexia" ...)

Of course there are many different factors for this. Most important the reduced ability of visual perception and optical differentiation. This sometimes it is just depending of the impulsiveness mentioned above.

In our society such children are trained in special schooling to improve those lacks and often this lessons are during the music lessons! Sadly they are missing quite the right and one of the best things that would help them to compensate.

Of course the music teacher could give advice to the parents to train them with playing cards and puzzles like this:


(He might even contact the school teachers and ask if they notice similar problems.)

I have to come back to my way of teaching reading sheet music: ** READING BY WRITING** and I will mention this in my answers again and again:

  • You might dictate him a short passage that he doesn't read correct and tell him to learn it to write and to play by heart too. If he was just lazy then after this period there won't probably be many similar situations as he will prefer to read it right from the beginning.

    Why reading by writing: The pattern of lines and notes will have to pass from his eyes through in his short term memory into his fingers by writing there is a greater chance that it will be rest in the long term memory.

  • or you give him the task to write down one of his favorite melodies or even an own invention as homework for the next lesson.

One root of analphabetism today is that the pupils are overflood by photo copies in school and don't have time to write down something from the black board.

(I've learnt the most when I started to write my own music with 13 years as wanted to become a "composer".)

  • +1 for 'writing'. I do this with sightreaders, as a sort of reverse sightreading. It works well - but not as 'punishment'. I'll play a phrase, in said key, sometimes with a triad to hear. they need to first find start note.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:40
  • I could have bet that this will come: "punishment" :) no, of course not, just as a test to find out how deep the problem might be. by the way: sometimes the selection of a piece is a punishment as well. or even the decision of the parents of learning an instrument instead of playing football. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 15:12

When I was at that stage on piano, reading bass clef, which was new to me at the time been a saxophonist. My teacher would make me sing the piece out first of all naming the notes.

I also found doing more and more sight reading of different pieces helped me to follow the music easier.


More often than not, the notes to be played are diatonic. Playing up and down the appropriate scale a few times prior to sightreading will put those notes at the forefront of his mind.

Instead of mentally reading each letter name, then finding it on the 'board, which is a two tier process, try a different approach. if, for instance, the next note is just two spaces above the last, again in a space, then it's a 5th above. No real need to name it, but play the note a 5th above. Same goes for line notes.

Get him to be used to looking at how far away notes are, in bigger intervals, in all keys, using the 'ladder'. For chromatic notes, the idea is similar, and the accidentals give clues.

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