Is Learning to Read Easier Than Learning to Play the Piano?
by Grace Vyduna-Haskins
From earliest childhood I wanted to learn to play the piano. One of those great upright instruments stood in our one-room county school, one in my friend's home, and another in our church where my older cousin, my ideal, accompanied our songs for Sunday school. Still another piano graced the living room in my aunt's home. Even more intriguing was the magnificent pump organ that decorated another aunt's parlor. I say 'decorated' because that's exactly what it did. No one knew how to play that exquisite instrument. My little fingers couldn't resist pressing the ivory keys whenever I came near to them -- but there was no musical instrument in our home.
The closest my tiny fingers came to making music was to move a small dust cloth in all the crannies of N-E-W-H-O-M-E, letters that were imbedded in the iron framework of our ancient treadle sewing machine. The only music it produced was a slow quiet whirring if I happened to move the treadle up and down.
I did, though, learn the names of those letters and the words that they spelled. We learned our letters in various ways -- in alphabet soup, by cutting out the letters on cereal boxes, and on very special occasions by using the alphabet stamps Mother kept safely stowed away from her teaching days. Once in school, learning to read seemed a very natural act as my teacher guided us through the Big Books, yes, big books, of Dick and Jane and taught us to sound through the lists of word families she wrote on the chalkboard. While I happily immersed myself in reading, I cringed at the embarrassment some of my fellow students must have felt as they struggled through every word in our primer.
When I was in seventh grade a piano arrived at our house just before Christmas. Only then did I begin to understand the complexities of conquering the keyboard and mastering the beautiful melodies it could produce.
As time elapsed I learned a lot about playing a keyboard instrument. I learned that some people have long graceful fingers that can stretch over many keys while others have short stubby fingers that can't even span an octave. Some people have excellent finger facility to move quickly over the keys. Others lack the agility and no amount of practice will ever create the speed of the more talented ones. Some people have the ability to just hear a melody and chord structure and can quickly reproduce on the keys that which their ears have heard. These will memorize pieces easily. Others are tone deaf. Some need to struggle with every melody and chord in order to memorize a single line of music. Some will learn to play proficiently but will always need to have music in front of them. Some continue to move over the keys mechanically while others immerse themselves totally in the music and play with great expression
Most students of the piano need to learn the names of the notes written on the music staff and the names of the keys on the instrument before they begin to play three-note pieces. They need to learn the difference between whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes very early in the process. They need to learn chord structure and the difference between major and minor chords and when to move just one finger on a hand while the others stay in the original position. The left hand must work completely separate from, but in harmony with, the right. All of this happens very mechanically at first before a student progresses to expanded melodies, incorporation of chords, and smoothness and facility of movement. Only through repetition and practice, playing the same piece over and over again, do most children reach the stage where they can perform in public or really derive true joy from the music they produce.
Some students may have a real desire to play the piano in spite of a lower degree of talent. Others may have natural talent but not the desire. Students who have long graceful fingers, fine finger facility, good ears for music, the capability to memorize compositions, and the desire to learn have the potential to become concert pianists. Others will learn to play at varying degrees of proficiency and still others will completely lose interest.
What about learning to read? Some children come to us with a wide range of pre-reading experiences. Others come from homes completely depraved of books. Some come eager to learn to read. For others it is a great mystery. Some come with excellent visual skills, photographic memories if you please. Others can't make any sense of the clusters of letters they're expected to master. Some have strong auditory channels. Others can't tell the difference between sounds. Many need kinesthetic and tactile experiences in order for letters and words to become imbedded in their minds. Can they recognize a sentence before they know what words are? What is a paragraph anyway?
Just as in learning to play the piano, many young readers need to master the small parts before they can proceed to the whole. Learning to form letters correctly, learning the sounds of the language and the letters that represent those sounds, taking words apart orally and producing them in written form, and combining those words into beautiful melodies of thought are very logical steps that need to be followed in the process of learning to read, especially for those who struggle.
I wonder -- how would we approach the issue of motivation and instruction if having every student learn to play the piano were a universal goal?