Being a “Paper Trained” Musician

Music note piano keys

I am a musician and I am a music educator. 

These are two of my favorite ways to describe myself and what I am passionate about. I also believe that being good at one makes you better at the other. When people hear that I am a musician, I usually get one of two responses:

  1. Wow, that’s awesome! Can you sing something/play something/write something for me?
  2. Wow, that’s awesome! We should totally jam sometime!

While I could write an entirely separate post on the first response, the second one is the one that frightens me the most. Why, you might ask? Well, I am what I like to call a “paper trained”musician.

I may not be the first to coin the term, but to me, being paper trained means that you can only play when you have a piece of music in front of you. In my case, I feel comfortable sight-reading pieces (piano, flute, vocal) up to a fairly high level of difficulty. Ask me to play from memory or to improvise something and I will shrivel into a tiny, musical blob.

Ok, you might say, just make sure you have music in front of you at all times and it won’t be an issue. To me, it still is. I don’t want to be the music teacher that has to say no when students ask me to perform something for them. I don’t want to be the person that just wants to sit and play the piano, but has to first fish out  a book or two to find the right piece. I was always jealous of the jazz kids in undergrad – they always looked like they were having so much fun and were so relaxed! While I loved studying classical music, I was always worried about getting each note perfect, something that I believe added to my reliance on physical music.

I didn’t realize how being paper trained really made a difference until I got into the classroom – specifically, my final semester of student teaching. I was matched with an incredible cooperating teacher who was the complete opposite of me – no paper training there! In fact, putting music in front of him (think Bach or Handel) would slow him down. He would often solely look at the guitar chords of  a piece and improv the piano part from them. He never played the same accompaniment twice, and I believe the students benefited from it. They, in turn, were less reliant on the piano and more self-sufficient.

Now that I have my own program and my very own students, I want to become less paper trained and more free with my playing and musicianship. Thankfully, I am still in the same district as my cooperating teacher (we were sharing a room up until this year), and we often joke that when put together, we make one complete piano player! I don’t want to pass my stiffness or my fear of not reading the music off of a sheet to my students – instead, I want them to feel confident  with improvisation, playing by ear, and creating accompaniments within given boundaries.

But how can I do that?

It starts by bettering myself and my musical abilities. In the past few years, I have:

  • Taken jazz courses
  • Taken theory courses (to become more familiar with chord voicings)
  • Begun listening to more jazz music
  • Practiced creating accompaniments from guitar chords
  • Continued to practice playing different styles of music (I tend to want to play the pretty, flowing stuff all the time)

In the end, our responsibility as music educators is to better ourselves so that we can then better our students. Don’t settle for what you know; always strive to learn more. NEVER stop learning! My hope is to look back in 35 years and know that I put in the effort to learn and achieve new things, and that my students were better because of it.

Are you “paper trained?” How do you deal with it, both in your personal and professional life? Are you at the other end of the spectrum? I would love to hear your comments and thoughts!

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22 responses

  1. I am totally with you – paper trained on piano and horn. Yet I teach a jazz band and am constantly trying to branch into that other world. It is pretty amazing what a wide gap there is between these two legitimate types of musicians.

    1. Hi David,

      I agree – I feel like there is miles! But I loved what you said about both of these types of musicians are “legitimate.” There are pros and cons to each type, and neither is better than the other.

      How did you come to start teaching a jazz band? Did that put you out of your comfort zone?

      Thanks for commenting!


      1. My first job was split between HS and MS bands, including the HS Jazz Band. Now I’m doing HS only. Yes, it put me out of my comfort zone A LOT, but I’ve learned a great deal since I started. I really didn’t get any jazz training in either of my colleges, so I had to “improvise” a bit until I got a grasp on things.

        1. Sometimes I feel like that’s the best way to learn – immersion in the “culture.” I’ve heard the same thing said about learning a language! Being thrown into something forces you to learn and become comfortable with it. Glad to hear that it all worked out. Gives me hope that I can get away from this “paper training” someday in the future!


  2. Julie – thanks for bringing this topic into our discussion network! I was lucky enough to have been both “paper trained” and “ear trained.” It makes a huge difference in the classroom. One of the ways I became more comfortable without music was by experimenting a LOT. I would spend hours at a keyboard, listening to music and trying to play along, figure out what the chords were, etc… that might help you as well!

    A lot of it is in confidence, too! Be confident and willing to make mistakes, and you might be surprised with yourself!

    1. Andy – thanks so much for the comment! I agree…a lot of it is confidence. I always equated making a mistake with being unprepared or the students seeing me as being a “bad teacher,” but I think that hearing/seeing us makes mistakes lets them know that it’s ok. Everyone is human, even teachers (though I’ve heard some comments that make me think they believe otherwise)!

      Thanks for the experimenting tip – I spend hours at a time playing, but it’s always with music. While that helps my dexterity, it doesn’t help my ear. I think I will devote some time to just “playing around” a bit next time I sit at the piano!


  3. I am totally “paper trained” too. I have that fearful feeling when someone asks me to play something if I have no music with me. My husband is the opposite, and when I try and play pop/modern music, he always says “why are you playing it so straight? Lighten up! You’re so classical!” In my teaching (K-8), I am so aware of how my training has affected me that I tend to go the opposite way with my students – just play and have fun with it, who cares if you make a mistake! The furthest I go with improv through is using the pentatonic scale with them. My only rule: just make sure you finish on C 😉

    1. Hi Jayne,

      Thank you for the comment – I absolutely know the fearful feeling that you are talking about! I played at an outdoor wedding ceremony last year and had my book of music ready to go. But the wind was blowing so hard that I had to clip the pages together and I couldn’t turn them mid-song! I wound up making up endings to the songs, and I could feel my heart beating out of my chest because I get so anxious when I need to play without music. When sharing space with my cooperating teacher, the kids always knew which songs he would be playing and which songs I would be playing just by hearing them (he played the rock and spiritual songs, I played the classical and art songs).

      I love that rule – I use the same one with my kids! =)


  4. Hi Julie,

    Orff Schulwerk training has really helped me hone my improvisational/creative skills, at the same time as it gives me the tools to teach that comfort with music to kids. Of course, I was always one of those freaks who could do paper OR by ear…I know it’s pretty rare.

    One of my favorite quotes/ideas is that in every language except English, notation is referred to by a different word than “music”. The term music is reserved for, you know, actual sounds. 😉 if only our language had this clearly delineated!

    I enjoy your blog! Keep up the good work!

    Tim Purdum

    1. Hi Tim,

      Funny you should mention Orff – I am currently diving into everything Orff related, one of the main reasons being that it fosters improvisation and creativity in the kids, something I never got. I’m hoping to get my first level this summer! =)

      I never thought about the whole notation/music thing – very interesting!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


      1. You’ll love Level One! 🙂 I knew you were interested in Orff from following you on Twitter. I would say it’s without a doubt the most important professional development I’ve ever had. And, yes, I’m totally biased.


        1. I’m so excited – I came from teaching Middle School for three years into this new elementary position, and I can already tell that I made the right choice! I have never been so motivated to learn more about the methods and gather more resources as I have been with Orff. I have heard nothing but good things! =)

          Where did you get your levels?


          1. Cleveland. My teachers were JoElla Hug (Level I Basic, Recorder), Brian Burnett (Basic, all Levels), Roger Sams (Level II-III Basic), and Maggie Hoffee (Movement).

            Currently, I am the Level I Basic pedagogy instructor at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, OH (right outside of Cleveland). Our course this summer is July 23-August 3. I’d love to have you in my class! Registration isn’t open yet, but I’ll let you know.

            There’s also a fabulous course right there in your area, at Villanova. Michelle Przybylowski and Beth Ann Hepburn that teach there are good friends of mine, and excellent Orff Schulwerk teachers!

          2. Actually, those later dates are exactly what I am looking for (I teach summer school until July 13th) – definitely let me know, I am willing to travel!

            Michelle Przybylowski was actually my cooperating teacher for my first student teaching placement – she is great! I attend all of our area workshops with the PAOSA chapter here in Philadelphia. Our next workshop is being run by Rollo Dilworth in January! There is just so much to take in and learn, it’s incredibly hard for me to “unplug” at night!


  5. Great post! I am also “paper-trained” and I was so fearful with improvisation- until Orff training. I had my levels I-III plus some supplemental courses at George Mason University when I taught in Northern VA. It changed the way I taught, and my own philosophy of music and music education.

    What helped me was realizing that we are the music creators, and our challenge is to teach our students to be creators of music, not just makers or music, or re-producers of music that’s already been made, but true creators. The Orff Process lends itself well to this.

    Also, if you have friends who jam and play – just go for it! Bring the books and read the chords. All you need to do is practice. Don’t say you “can’t” you just “need more practice!” 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m looking forward to getting my Level I this summer – not sure where yet (I need later July dates), but I am definitely going to make it happen. I have heard nothing but wonderful things about the process and its results, and I have loved all of the area Orff workshops that I have attended!

      I agree – I want my kids to do something other just recreate something that has already been done. Practice definitely helps in any situation! =)


  6. I think it’s much easier to start off papertrained and work backwards than the other way around. That’s what I’ve been doing recently. Love your blog! Pleased to see a fellow musician/ music teacher writing their own blog. Mine is

    1. Hi Alison,

      I would tend to agree, although reading music does not always guarantee an understanding of music itself – like chord voicings and that sort of thing. Even though I can play almost anything that’s put in front of me, I would crumble if you asked me to play Abm to Dbm or something like that without music in front of me. Thankfully, my theory/jazz classes and practice with improvising accompaniment from guitar chords have helped me to get better with that.

      Thanks for the compliment – I’m looking forward to spending some time updated and writing posts once this final grad school project is submitted in a couple of weeks. I will definitely check yours out as well! =)


      1. Best (but most frustrating) theory work my grade 10 music teacher got me to do was to take every possible variation of a C chord (Cmaj7, Cmin9, C/G, etc.) that she had written out in treble and bass and have me figure them out and write them out in F and G. Now whenever I read from chords I can spell them out quickly, even if I’m terrible at comping. The next best challenge was taking the lead sheet for Desafinado and figure out how to play Bossa Nova style, although, it kind of proved to me that I need to stick with singing.

  7. Hey, great blog. I’m a bit from the other side of things. I’m able to sit with a chord chart and play through in almost any style and i think this is my great skill as a music educator. But i think i suffer like all guitarists, once I’ve memorised one of the more difficult classical pieces i’ve studied then going back to the written music only hampers me.

    I think its interesting that we describe ourselves as a musician, people will expect us to be able to do near anything. But describe yourself as a pianist, or a Guitarist as i am, and people will put you in a box i think and not expect so much.

    As music educators i think its beneficial to be able to put yourself in many different musical situations with confidence. This is what you can then pass on to students.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment! I think it’s great that you can improv different styles when given just the chords to a piece. I can definitely voice the chords on the piano, but all of my “improv” accompaniments wind up sounding the same, partially because I am over-thinking the notes in the chords.

      I agree – being able to do a little bit of everything in a comfortable manner will be the most beneficial to our teaching and our students. We are their role models and we need to be ready and willing to do anything!


  8. […] Thoughts from a classical musician who only plays music that’s “on the page” (Music Ed Musings) […]

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