The ‘Reading Racket’

You don't have to read music to play well

This series of articles focuses on the question: "Do I have to learn to read music in order to become a good player?"

Student Burnout   A friend of mine, a music teacher with another school, told me about a student who just quit taking lessons. "I don't get it. He was doing so good. He's only been here seven months, and he's already in Book 3. Do you know how fast that is? I don't know what the problem is. As soon as he got halfway through Book 3, he lost interest. I tried to talk to him about it. I talked to his parents. He just doesn't want to do it anymore. I get so bummed out when this happens."

My friend's student is just the latest victim of the 'reading racket.' I'm not calling all reading lessons 'rackets.' I teach reading all the time to people who are preparing for situations that require reading. But it turns into a 'racket' when the only purpose is to see how far you can go in this or that lesson series. Unfortunately, that is how many teachers and schools measure their success - how many kids got to what level in what amount of time. How well the kids learned their recitals pieces, which are probably the only things they will ever play well in their musical lives.

Tacit Assumptions   Reading-based lessons turn into a racket when you're tricked into the false assumption that reading is necessary in order to play well. You walk in, and some guy wows you with his incredible playing chops, all his diplomas and certificates. The student's implied question is, "What will it take for me to play well?" The teacher's implied answer usually starts with one of the 5 best-selling general-purpose beginners note-reading books. In most music schools/stores, every student is working out of a book.

But wait. Now the student assumes that in order to learn to play, you must also learn to read staff notation. Because every teacher starts with the same 5 books. But that's simply not true.

You don't have to read in order to play well. Paco de Lucia played very well, but he didn't read music. Clapton famously can't read music. Indian classical musicians don't read music when they perform. To read or not to read depends completely on the playing environment you're preparing for. Just want to jam with friends around a campfire? Forget reading by sight. Play by ear. Read By Ear!

Part of the problem is the general public doesn't understand anything about working environments and working styles of musicians in real life. A lot has changed in the past few decades.

The Socratic Method   Reading also turns into a racket when your lesson sounds like this: "Wait a minute, that isn't right. You're not playing what's written. What note is that? No, that's not right. What note is that? No, look at it again. No, that isn't Db. Look at it again and tell me. No. Where is Db? That isn't Db. Look again. No, that's C. You know that. Where's Db? No, that's wrong. You're not playing what's written..."

That's an extreme example, but there used to be a lot of teachers like that. That was their routine all day long. Fortunately, most of them have died off. And in fairness, if you're teaching young kids, that kind of exchange is okay sometimes. But if you're grown and your teacher is just lording over you, you're learning the hard way.

Define: Playing   'Playing' is putting your hands on the guitar and making music. 'Playing' is strumming chords and picking notes - tasks you do with your hands, like eating with a fork or tying your shoes. Changing between two chord shapes in time with a recording is just as simple as it sounds. It's something you can learn in minutes even if you've never played before. Changing chords over your first recorded track is the first step in conditioning your hands, and the first step in playing by ear. It's the first step in changing your relationship to your music library, and to music itself.

If you want to learn to read music:

Define: Reading Music  It's learning to decipher letter names from staff notation. Those letter names correspond to fixed points on the guitar neck. Decipher a letter name, and find it on the neck.

The first task, deciphering the letter name from the position of the note on the staff, doesn't necessarily have anything to do with music. You're just answering the question, "What is this note name?" Your answer is a letter from 'A' to 'G.' Finding the notes on the guitar neck is a separate task.

Learning theory suggests we learn and practice these two tasks (name the note, find the note) separately before we put them together. You don't have to, but it's psychologically easier on both of us.

Online Flashcards   If you want to learn to read music, first learn the letter names on the staff. The most effective and systematic way to do that is with online flashcards. There are several good, free online flashcards. You can learn to read gradually, starting with just a few notes. Gradually expand the range of notes, and later include sharps and flats. Here's a great one from the fine folks at MusicTheory.Net. (They've got a tip jar if you're feeling generous.)

Enlarged Copies   One of the problems with books from the major publishers is the music is often a little too small to read comfortably, especially if you're just learning to read. This is easy to solve. Just make enlarged landscape copies of your music. The examples in many books are short, and can be formatted to fit on one page. Scan your music and use a graphics editor, or make enlarged photocopies.

As a teacher, I have my students read from enlarged photocopies of books I work with. My lessons go much smoother because of it. It's amazing, you'd think they were different kids. It's just an extra step I take to make things psychologically easier on my students. You know, just one of those little things your teacher is too lazy and unimaginative to bother with. When you buy a book, you have a legal right to make copies for your own use.

Page formatting and flashcards make a big difference with my students. The lessons are easier, they learn faster. For instance, kids who start with flashcards will never understand how anyone thinks reading notes is hard, because the flashcards make it so easy. Tell them "reading's hard," they just mark you down as not very bright.

Both schools where I work are putting lesson materials online, solving the formatting problems. We use online flashcards to make our students better readers. So my remarks aren't targeted at teachers where I currently work. The Rock Lessons Programs I've developed for both schools address all of these problems.

The tacit, unexamined assumption that you must read to play well will prevent many people from becoming the musicians they might otherwise have become had not all of their practice hours been monopolized by the burdensome distraction from the development of technical and interactive skills that is: reading staff notation. The ability to decipher music by ear is a more valuable skill for students not destined to end up in reading environments.

There are too many more incorrect tacit assumptions to list here, but I'll unpack more of them later posts. Call it belaboring the obvious. I call it asking important, unasked questions out loud. Next weeks topics look at how schools and teachers contribute to the problem. Please check back next week for Part 2.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *