Fluency and Music


Music performance, at its best, must be fluent. Listeners expect to hear uninterrupted lines that include clear communicative information. Listeners desire accuracy and true competency from performers. From the simplest tunes to the most virtuosic concerti, the test of a fine performance is demonstrated fluency.

In recent weeks, I have been using a model/metaphor of fluency and music a great deal in my classes. Many of you know that my early music training is Suzuki violin instruction and the fluency model seems natural to me as a result of that instruction. I would like to take a little bit of time today to outline some of these thoughts.

What Is Fluency?

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Fluency provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. When fluent readers read silently, they recognize words automatically. They group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read. Fluent readers read aloud effortlessly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking. Readers who have not yet developed fluency read slowly, word by word. Their oral reading is choppy. Fluent readers demonstrate accuracy, expression, pace punctuation, and comprehension.

So, in music it is very similar. Fluency in music would be explained as the ability to read and perform a score accurately, quickly and with expression. I often tell my students that there is a difference between “comprehension level” music learning and “performance level” music learning. A fluent musician would demonstrate accuracy, expression, pace, punctuation, phrasing and comprehension within the context of the performance.

I am using the fluency model particularly frequently in my Classical Piano and Guitar course at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. This is a course designed for all levels of instruction. I teach beginning piano and guitar as part of the class and also work with more intermediate or advanced students who have some or extensive experience on their instrument. Many of these students come to me with a blank slate of experience and others come with varying levels of competency in music and music reading. In order to get all students moving in a similar fashion, I ask them all to consider their work in music using the fluency model.

The Fluency Model

The model is as follows:
Everybody learns to speak by learning individual words. As we learn a word we use it over and over. A great example would be the word “hot.” A small child learns the word “hot” and then uses it in repetition until it becomes an active part of their vocabulary. The same is true for the repertoire my students are learning. They learn a musical concept, technique, or song, repeat that technique or song many times and it eventually becomes part of their active musical vocabulary.

We can also add the act of music reading into this model. Initially, small children read one letter at a time, then one word at a time, and eventually read full phrases and sentences with ease. The same is true for music. We can tell when students are reading isolated individual notes, then phrases, and eventually entire pieces.

Beginning Students

For my beginning students, I explain to them that by learning repertoire and maintaining that repertoire, they are developing a vocabulary. They must continuously use that vocabulary of musical techniques to become fluent. Thus, if a student continues to play a basic song over and over, the song eventually becomes fluent and flowing. The student can play the piece much like we speak, without over-thinking the individual aspects of the piece. Thus, they are operating in a fluency model. My beginning piano and guitar students typically learn between 10 and 15 songs in a trimester. By the end of one term, they are fluent in each of those pieces and have a repertoire or “vocabulary” to build on.

Intermediate Students

Often times it is more difficult to convince my more intermediate students of this concept. So many students with some experience come to me thinking that they are much more fluent than they actually can demonstrate. Fluency involves a true understanding of all aspects of the vocabulary. In other words, one must know how to identify individual letters of words, define each word in a sentence, put the sentence together, and say and read it with inflection. That requires a great deal of skill!

It is the same with music.

The fluent musician must understand each individual note, its rhythm, its place in the musical phrase, how to read and perform that phrase accurately, and how to inflect that phrase accurately and fluently. So many students have spent all of their time working on simply notes and rhythms or just imitating their teacher or recordings. It is rare for students to arrive in my class fully fluent in every aspect of the repertoire they are used to learning. This sometimes causes problems because I want them to be able to demonstrate fluency in all aspects of their performance. Many of them have to revert to simpler repertoire to actually achieve this goal.

In Rehearsals

I find that the fluency model is also effective in my orchestra rehearsals. Early in the rehearsal cycle, we are reading. We are sounding out “words,” finding connections and cues in the written score, and operating on a more remedial, functional level. As the students begin to learn a work more extensively, they can perform more fluently. The work is less about the minutiae and more about the larger ideas. Some students never get past the point of the remedial reading phase. Others get to the fluency phase much earlier.

One strong difference between an ensemble performance and my piano and guitar class is the fact that everybody needs to be fluent for the orchestra to perform with fluency. Even a small number of players that haven’t achieved that fluent level can bring the ensemble performance down. Right now, my orchestra is preparing for a performance of a Mozart symphony and it is so imperative that every player is fluent in their part. Even small inconsistencies can yield negative results.

I also find the fluency model to be applicable to the world of improvisation. When we are speaking extemporaneously, we are effectively “improvising” with words. In other words, we are calling on phrases and ideas that we have learned and prepared ahead of time that fit into the context of the conversation at hand. This is improvisation at its best. In order to improvise, we call on our experience with and preparation in concepts surrounding key, mode, rhythm, time, melody, and expression (to name only a few).


Additionally, fluency in conversation requires listening. So, this model provides a great vehicle for discussing the importance of listening in solo and ensemble music performance. In order to respond appropriately to a phrase or idea, one must be willing to listen to the information that precedes.

I recently had a wonderful conversation on this topic with a student who is bilingual. English is his second language. He learned English as a teenager and did so by putting labels with the names of objects all over his house. There were labels on the table, chair, desk, book, shirt, etc. He told me that now he sees labels in his mind all the time. And, in fact, now both languages require thought. For him, music does not have any labels. It never did. So, now music is his most fluent language.

In closing, I asked my students to articulate their understanding of fluency as it relates to both language and music. One said, “Fluency is getting past small picture to big picture. Another shared, “Fluency is not having to think specifically about the technical. It is simply expression.” Finally, a third remarked, “Fluency is like liquid: free and expressive.”

I encourage to give this model a try with your students. It has really resonated with my students and I feel like they have a more accurate picture of the true goals of rehearsal and performance.

I wish you all and your students many fluent performances!

This article was originally published on the Thoughts of a String Educator blog and is used with permission of the author.

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