As a music instructor, one of the the most common problem areas that I see for most students is music reading. There are two specific areas that this is a problem, and in this article, I would like to give some pointers to help students do better in this area of their practice.
The first, and most troublesome area for the majority of the students that I have is note name memorization. The first trap they fall into, is using mnemonic devices to learn the lines and spaces. For instance, the treble clef spaces spell the word face. This is the typical music class approach to teaching lines and spaces, and it is fine for taking written tests, but reading music is a real time activity. There is no time to run through the word face to get the E note, when you are trying to keep a tempo and read the notes. It just will not work. If there is a key signature, you have to know what the note is immediately, so that it can be sharped or flatted if necessary. Again, this is a real time activity, and there is no time to run through your memorized pattern.
Worse yet, many people resort to writing the note names under the notes. This will generally result in the student reading the letters, and not the notes. The names will not get memorized, and worse, if the student is looking at letters, they may end up with the right note, but in the wrong octave.
The second area of difficulty, is keeping time. Many times the student is getting the notes right, but there is absolutely no tempo, making what they are playing just a random series of notes. Correct counting is the only way for a melody to be recognizable. To illustrate this, I play a descending major scale for the student, and then ask them what song it is. Then I play Joy to the World, which is a descending major scale, which they immediately recognize. This illustrates the importance of counting.
The question then becomes, how do you fix these problems? We will start first with note names. The short answer on this one is that, there is no real shortcut. You have to memorize the note names, and be able to immediately recognize the note on sight, without having to run through a memorized sequence to get to the line or space that you need to identify. Flash cards can be a good aid here for younger students. The advantage being, that you can show the card for a limited time, so that there is no way to use a memorized pattern to identify the note. Correct notes can be separated from incorrect ones, so that focus can be put on the notes that need the study.
Saying note names in your head as you play them can also reinforce memorization. This can be done while playing the notes as all quarter notes in the piece, in order to concentrate on playing the correct pitches. By removing the rhythm at first, emphasis can be put on making sure the notes, (and fingering), are correct. This can also be done one measure at a time, until each measure is mastered. In the case of a pianist, one hand should be done at a time.
To work on the rhythm, you can take a similar approach. Pick one note on your instrument, and play the piece one measure at a time, playing only the rhythm. Many students find that they can play a piece that they are familiar with, much easier than one that they are not, even if the rhythm is more complex. This is because they already know what the rhythm in the song sounds like. By playing just the rhythm of the piece that you are trying to learn, you get familiar with the rhythm, and what it sounds like. This can also be done one measure at a time, and one hand at a time on a keyboard.
Do not overlook the importance of playing slowly. You should never play faster than the slowest measure for you in the piece. Figure out which measure you have to go the slowest to play, and then set your metronome to that tempo, and stick with it. So often I hear students speeding up and slowing down, based on what is easy or hard for them. Quality and evenness are much more important than quantity.
These are a few ideas to get you started. The important thing to remember is that sufficient practice is the most important step toward clearing up all of these problems. Without that, even the suggestions I have given you will not be enough. Sometimes there are no real shortcuts other than just doing the work. Practice hard, apply the suggestions above, and you will be on the road to successful music reading.