As I think about my music reading skills, I realize they have gone through very interesting phases. I started in the fourth grade in elementary school where playing by ear and reading music were taught simultaneously. Another system was used by many of my orchestral colleagues. They were taught in a Suzuki class in which their ears were developed first, followed by lessons in reading music. Both methods had done their job of laying a musical foundation. At that point I needed something more, though. I needed to to troubleshoot, to become very nit-picky about the details. The next method I would use would be my own. I needed to figure out what was missing and fill in the blanks.
During those early childhood years in my musical life I was also learning to read words. The advantage there was that I spent many more hours and lots of classroom time learning something that was essential and expected.
Also, every word I learned had a built-in association. Cow, dog, apple, run…How quickly that jump-started the learning process.
Notes Have Meanings (and Feelings) Too
When I read notes, however, it opened up the world of feelings, fingerings, and bowings. An added bonus was the game-like experience of notes on the page going up and down. (There were no video games then. Entertainment was more primitive.) Some notes went higher, others lower, some skipped, some sounded like a folk song I grew up with.
What makes notes more difficult to read than words? The meanings of notes are not that obvious. (The irony was that, years later, when emotion and music were intertwined, I would appreciate how much one little note could mean.) It would help if the teacher sang the song for me, or if I sang it myself. Such a simple exercise would become the bedrock of reading notes – teaching me that the fingers shouldn’t move until the notes had gone through my mind.
Fortunately, in spite of music being an “abstract” language, its notation couldn’t be easier. It was based on half-steps, whole-steps, and arithmetically straight-forward rhythms, while the spelling of English words and their grammar often cause confusion. Before I dive into the pitfalls of reading music, I just want to take a moment to appreciate its clarity.
The Ingredients that Make Up Note-Reading
Exercise: Sing a melody to yourself and name the intervals. Don’t decide too quickly. Start with small intervals, then add thirds, fourths, and fifths. Think of a fourth as two whole steps and a half step. This will improve your reading because you’re keeping track of where you are on the fingerboard.
The pitches in my ears and the notes on the page pointed my fingers in the right direction…most of the time. Playing the right notes a certain number of times gave me the confidence to be more patient about identifying the notes that were giving me trouble.
To make my reading better, I needed to stop more often when there was confusion about where I was going to place my finger. Stop before the mistake happens!! Creating a muscle memory that’s incorrect is hard to get rid of. I had to think a couple of measures in advance, maybe even from the beginning of the phrase. Thinking ahead is such a handy device, even if it does feel a bit awkward. The more I included thought with my playing, which is kind of an oil and water thing, the less clunky it would be.
Instead, I played by ear and let it work together with reading the music. I heard the intervals and played the appropriate finger. Thereby I strengthened all aspects of reading music – ear, muscle memory, and intervals. Beats rote any day!!
What Reading Music Taught Me About Learning the Viola
When I started learning viola 15 years ago I found it very frustrating to learn new fingerings for notes I was overly familiar with on the violin. I kept wanting to know the names of the notes in alto clef, not realizing that that was what was holding me back. It got easier when I simply figured out the first note of a passage and played the rest by ear. A very beautiful thing with my mind happened after that. It sorted out the details without any help from me. Muscle memory started snowballing and before I knew it, I was organically playing the viola. I have a huge amount of respect for rote learning, but it needs to partner with the other gifts the mind is capable of.
Be As Good a Reader As You Can Be
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