I have encountered beginner adults who have not learned how to read notes. Many learned through youtubes, websites, and some have only taken a one credit class in music theory, from the very basic staff to the major scale. Many have great ears. One of my students picked up "Girl with the flaxen hair" Debussy prelude by ear.
When oral tradition was replaced by written ones, from orators to scribe, the written words themselves (in Greek) had no space. Written texts were used to remind ourselves what we already know. Learners already heard the speech many times and the written words were just a little help along the main thread, the core idea. Music notation started in the same way, from imprecise neumes to overly prescribed articulation, dynamic and pacing symbols. As men controlled more and more of his/her environment, the world specialized in all field, including music. Interpreters were separated from composers. We began to rely on our sight before hearing the sound.
Charles Hicks in the 1980s published in the Music Educator's Journal "Sound before Sight, strategies for teaching music reading."
The advice is logical, with emphasis on continuity, repetition, repeated patterns, narrow range, same key signature, generally a constructivist approach (always add one new element with something familiar). his recommendation was that the PRINCIPLES of notation rather than the SYSTEM of notation should be explored.
In what ways can this translate into a lesson plan?
Hidden in the writing of symbols are organized SOUND. If one can help a student first notice how sound perception can be organized and classified: in time (double the speed?), in pitch (higher or much higher?), in volume, in attack (choppy or smooth?) or lines (where are the sentences?) before one introduces them to the written notation, it would help contextualize the purpose of learning these new symbols. When we learned to speak we learned by imitation. Why should one learn written music before one learns what a regular beat is, and what one can do with that duration in time?
With very young children I have many rhythm games, or solfege games, based on what I learned at Suzuki camps, or with pedagogue such as Michiko. For pitch changes, aside games that required physical big motion such as walking on a staff, or arm motions for steps or skips, I also devised a mnemonic system of drawings. I doodle these images on a blank page without staff. After a while it is a matter of drawing a symbol of the animal in question to the notes on the staff, and gradually erase those drawings after explanation of the motions on the staff. Chords were color coded, tense chords were red or orange (dominant or sub-dominant) and the "home" chord was green (tonic). Children can learn the broad brushstroke before the exact note, or even their names. About 16 years ago I met an adult at a community college who was a wonderful intermediate pianist in a chamber ensemble. She could not name any single note. She could not find the third beat of measure 33. She could, on the other hand, start anywhere if I point to the exact spot on the page. I thus learned not to give out anymore written games of naming notes without sound or keys to press.
My very first questions to adult beginners are usually about their goals in taking piano lessons. Some would like to reproduce songs or pieces, some like to create, some, to accompany themselves singing, others say they have the treble clef down but would like to learn the bass clef, some "doodle" on the keys. My second question is usually about what kind of songs or pieces they listen to, in order to know what to use to motivate them, or ask them to show me what they "doodle". The third step is trying out how fast they can learn by imitation, and gage how much exercise to give for coordination and small motor control in warm ups. Adults can handle reading notes from the very first lesson, but many are stuck with the trees (naming of each note) and have difficulty seeing the forest (motion of notes or shapes of chords).
Our music education system puts a lot of weight on the Oral, less on the Aural tradition; it is leaned toward the visual rather than the audio part of learning music. Folk or Art music around the world are, for the most part, still transmitted by oral tradition. Even when written down, they require close encounter with an instructor, because learning is through exposure, enculturation and imitation. In India, a novice just listens for a year before attempting to improvise lightly a scale (raga). Years can pass before he or she is allowed to imitate licks of the teacher. Here in the U.S., there are students technically proficient who barely go to one concert a year. With certain other instrument, such as trumpet, hearing the sound is extremely important as the same buttons may be pressed, but the way one blows determines the pitch. In order to know whether or not one has blown the right pitch, one has to hear it first. Why don't we learn piano the same way? Less like a typewriter, more like a musical instrument.
How many of us teachers have encountered a student that played Ode to Joy with the dotted quarter note - eighth note instead of the written quarter notes? They are guided by what they hear on the inside. Most beginner piano books start with what they consider standard repertoire that everyone should know, such as Mary had a little lamb, Jingle bell and so forth. Please don't change the rhythm! This repertoire is also not updated nor culturally relevant. The Mexican Hat is not what Mexican Americans listened to, and most of us know "Oh When the Saints" (except new immigrants which I have taught) but some of us also know Amazing Grace, or the latest Lady Gaga, Birdy or Pentatonix. If the point is to teach something familiar, then we need an online continuously updated book for the younger generation. One where they can go in and choose songs they know, arranged for different levels, and print out song by song as they progress and taste changes.
As for the different types of arrangements one can do for each song with a chord chart, this can be learned in workshops, webinars, or conferences.
I hope more publishers will go back to our tradition of putting Sound before Sight.
Look for Mindful Music Academy Facebook page.