Shinichi Suzuki understood the big issues. He had the vision to recognize that we process music first and foremost through our ears. Once we heard the music, he felt that other techniques would follow suit -- including reading. He also heard countless students who played the violin as if the fingerboard were flat. In other words, their minds didn’t make the mental adjustment that was required to re-orient themselves to each new string. In an extreme case of "bad physics", the first finger would drift sharper and sharper as it moved, string by string, from the G to the E. Since this type of physics is as predictable as the "good" kind, Suzuki did us all the service of publishing Quint Etudes (Suzuki Method International, 1959), with enough exercises to rewire the brain for noticing the change in the fingerboard’s planes.
Knowing the Musical Blueprint
The job of reading music and knowing what it feels and sounds like starts in the mind and grows with patience and reflection. I came to understand this when I learned about "audiation," a fascinating characteristic that musicians share but can be further cultivated. Edwin Gordon coined the term in 1975, which, according to Wikipedia, refers "to comprehension and internal realization of music, or the sensation of an individual hearing of feeling sound when it is not physically present." In other words, hearing music in your head. Once I heard about this aptitude that some musicians have more than others, I tried to strengthen it within myself.
Music as Morsels
Here's another important factor in reading music: the necessity to divide music so that we don’t go into information overload. This is described by the American psycholinguists L. Fraser and J.D. Fodor, and excerpted from the Dictionary of Theories, edited by Jennifer Bothamley. (Gale research International, 1993) I find that its explanation of how we read words is easily transferrable to music. Known as the "sausage machine" theory, it states that people divide sentences into parcels roughly six words long, and that they process the structure of each segment before moving on to the next segment, or "sausage." Once I started processing music in this way -- and quit rushing and gorging from note to note -- I noticed I had lots more time as well.
Why Reading Mistakes Happen
In spite of our best efforts at creating and being influenced by great theories, the fact remains that reading music presents obstacles that only diligence and common sense can overcome. Distractions alone account for many wrong accidentals or intervals. Practicing incorrectly, especially not keeping the rhythm proportional or not "framing" the notes that fit together, can produce a cataclysm of rushed and wrong notes.
The worst-case scenario is when bad notes topple over each other, when a single mishap crashes into all the notes around it. These Nascar moments make it urgent to design a system of reading that compartmentalizes each of the musical moments. Don’t look to the bar lines to help you do that. Watch a conductor’s baton, gestures, and eyes to point out the myriad ways that music changes direction and mood. Music shouldn’t be a house of cards, but a series of self-sustaining structures. One wrong note won’t be noticed. On the other hand, one after another after another mistake…even your mother will shake her head.
Framing the Music...One Word, One Phrase, or One Sentence at a Time
For all the speed and forward movement that musicians have to deal with, we also have plenty of time to read the music as slowly as we need to. Some musical patterns and groupings come easy to us, while others take a moment to notice and digest their deviation. Give yourself as much time as you need. It feels so good to unclog a cluster that seems complicated.
If you review the notes slowly, and even more importantly, in a proportional manner, they will be with you forever, through thick and thin. Reading music as if it is unfolding in a timely manner is much more satisfying than feeling rushed. You can’t predict when you’ll be in a rushing environment, but you can be prepared for it. Your time in the practice room allows you to absorb the music the way your brain intended it, by observing the intervals, the surprises, and the emotional signals.
An additional benefit is that when you read the music at a natural pace, the rhythm spreads itself out evenly, and slower than you expected. It’s a welcome relief to the alternative, when slapdash reading makes rushing automatic. When the music is coming at you uncontrollably and with relentless speed, I call it "front-loading" the rhythm and the notes. Everything gets squeezed together, the pattern sounds congealed, and it’s vulnerable to falling apart.
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