I've been thinking a LOT about this lately. I'm 2/3 of the way through the first year of my pilot project, which is called "Fiddles for All." This program is the result of a grant I received through a local organization which allowed me to purchase 25 quarter and half size violins for my general music classroom. All second graders in my district learn to play the violin as part of their general music class. They do not take the instruments home and I see them twenty-five minutes a week, twice a week.
I've learned so much through this process and have kept a detailed journal, but the most striking revelation to me is that they have learned to play music together - MUSIC - not notes on a page. Had I put traditional method books in front of them, they might be playing Lightly Row by now, but it wouldn't sound like music. It would sound like: A F#, F#, G, E, E... and so on.
These kids play together - and they come up with their own ideas to expand on what we learn in class. The songs we learn as a class come from the ideas they give me. I ask them - "What songs do ALL kids know how to sing?" and we learn those, along with other songs I teach them in order to have a sequence of technical skills. But even those are songs with words and melodies. The students improvise and harmonize. They add other classroom instruments. They sing. They dance. Basically, we are "Orffing" violin. Violin is the new recorder in my classroom.
Coming to the realization that learning to read the music is not necessarily beneficial to playing the music made me wonder how many kids quit because they cannot decode traditional Western notation. Me, 10 years ago:
"You can't write the names of the notes on the music because you won't learn to read the music." Result? The student eventually quits because they can't decode the music on the staff. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?
Do students in conservatories need to read music. Yes. Do 99.9% of all other students need to learn to read music? Maybe not in a traditional form. What about tablature? Maybe they can figure out a system that works for them if they need to notate something.
I never want another student of mine to quit because traditional notation doesn't make sense for them. EVER. Most of them never told me that was why they quit. They might not have known, themselves. They might have just been frustrated and it wasn't a satisfying experience. (Notice I didn't say happy - music isn't always happy.)
Students with dyslexia and other disabilities might be fabulous musicians. We might never know that though, if we don't give up on the idea that everyone needs to read music.