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Reading Music, Part Two – Learning At the Best Time, In the Best Way

Found in: Coaching, Miscellany & Merriment

Many people have the misconception that the Simply Music program doesn’t teach music reading, but as you may have gathered in my recent article asking how important is it to read music?, we consider music-reading a valuable and wonderful tool.  However, that doesn’t mean that it has to have the same role and be taught the same way it’s been taught for the last hundred years.  The why, when and how of learning to read is worth questioning.  We thought it would be worth looking a little more closely at how Simply Music addresses those whys, whens and hows, and hopefully has reading occupy the best place for you as you advance towards being a well-rounded 21st century musician.  Personally, I think there are still assumptions about music reading – that you’re not a “proper” musician until you can read, or that learning without reading is some kind of cop-out – that may make reading seem like the destination itself rather than a guide on the musical journey – albeit a particularly useful one.

Learning at the best time

As I’ve said before, it’s common for a beginner to be overwhelmed by the complexities of music reading, especially when they are, at the same time, confronting the physical and mental challenges of the keyboard and training those fingers to do things they’ve never done before.  It’s also worth remembering that piano presents some reading challenges beyond most other instruments.  Compared to, say, a violin, it has a huge range, encompassing both bass & treble clef and beyond, with the additional vertical reading challenge of chords.  Is it desirable to add that whole level of complexity on top of the part – actually playing – that will most likely keep you excited about learning?

So: you’ve begun lessons with a Simply Music teacher, and you’ll notice you’re staying well away from those dots and squiggles on the page, focussing instead right there on the keyboard, working on great pieces of music and sourcing your instructions directly from your teacher, videos and a few written clues.  While you’re having fun going straight to playing and directly accessing your built-in musicality, more importantly there’s a lot going on ‘under the hood’.  What you’re doing in the early stages is building a set of base tools with which you’ll be able to build an ever-expanding suite of skills into the future.  It’s a bit like exploring woodworking by making a bunch of small (but nice) things in the shed before diving into the home renovation manual.  Patterns, shapes, sentences, positions – these are the building blocks that construct a musical world.

For most Simply Music players, the approach of spending time with the score, looking for learning strategies, then focussing back on the keyboard, feels natural and puts reading in the place of a servant rather than a master.

Still, you may be nervous, thinking, “What if I forget something in the piece?  If I knew how to read, I’d have something to fall back on”.  This fear is perfectly understandable, but it ignores the fact that you do have something to fall back on – the video instructions (and, of course, your teacher, and, if you’re in a shared lesson, your fellow students).  Also, this fear assumes at least two things that may not be true.  It assumes that if you could read you would be able to comfortably read that piece at that time.  But reading, like any other skill, needs to be learned and practiced.  It’s a new language which takes time to learn and develop fluency in.  Chances are, unless you have prior experience, the reading will occur as an additional layer of information over the playing instructions you’re concerned about forgetting.  In contrast, the video uses language that you already know well and will take you directly to the learning strategies you need to be reminded of.  The other assumption is that you would have ever successfully learned the piece by reading in the first place.  By avoiding the extra complexity of reading at early levels, we can cover a large number of pieces, many of which may pose reading challenges that would make them too difficult until a more advanced stage.

Learning in the best way

One thing about  reading that we don’t always appreciate is that really we need to know multiple languages at once.  Rhythm is represented quite differently to pitch, which is written differently to expression, and so on.  A music reader may not appreciate how multilingual they are!  In Simply Music lessons, our ’single thought process’ approach lends itself to separating these languages out, and learning them in a sequence, and at a time, when they can most naturally be understood and used right away.

Composer of MusicThe reading languages that require most attention to begin with are rhythm and pitch.  Even within each of those languages, there might be multiple approaches to their learning.  For example with pitch, the most common approach is to learn the note names using mnemonics like ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’.  This is great for many instruments, but becomes unwieldy when tackling the huge range of the piano, crossing both clefs and stretching deep into leger lines.  Simply Music uses an intervallic approach, focusing on distances between notes.  This visual, pattern-oriented approach dovetails beautifully with the way we’ve learned to play.  By then, we’ve honed our pattern-seeking skills and will be well equipped to find patterns on the page and quickly translate what we see into patterns on the keyboard.  We start the reading with relatively simple pieces, continuing our single thought process approach by minimising challenges in the actual playing.

You might have heard your Simply Music teacher describe our method as ‘playing-based’, perhaps comparing it to ‘reading-based’ approaches.  Really though, these two approaches are not ‘apples and apples’.  They are not really alternatives; it’s more like reading being an additional skill set.  Personally I prefer the term ‘reading-sourced’, treating the page as a new source to which we can apply familiar strategies.  We began our musical journey by sourcing our instructions from the teacher or the videos; later when we learn to read, we have a new source.  Either way, we then apply our playing-based tools to the source information.  You also find that the pattern recognition skills we’ve developed can be applied to the page itself – i.e., seeing visual patterns, identifying things that repeat, identifying sentences and sections, and so on on the page.  This helps you break down the information on the page into suitable sized pieces to unfold back on the keyboard.

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Another common misunderstanding is around sight-reading.  Many people, when they talk about reading music, are picturing in their mind a person reading a piece on the fly, the way you are reading this text now.  This is called sight-reading, and I think of it as more of a way of reading, a tremendously powerful way, but not the only way.   It’s pretty rare for a hobbyist to do proficiently, at least on the piano.  It’s a skill which typically takes a long time to master, and while it’s a fabulous gift to have, for many of us the work involved doesn’t always repay in equal dividends.  It may even have some negative side effects – some people who focus on sight-reading can become somewhat dependent on the page.  Some motivated Simply Music students might choose to develop the ability to sight read, but even when they do, I always try to make sure that that skill isn’t interfering with their willingness to go ‘off-script’, making them reluctant to explore improvising, composing and open-minded interpretation.

For most Simply Music players, the approach of spending time with the score, looking for learning strategies, then focussing back on the keyboard, feels natural and puts reading in the place of a servant rather than a master.