Music Literacy 101: If You Can't Say It, You Can't Play It!
June 8, 2015
As any musician can tell you, mastering a musical instrument is no easy task. In addition to learning how to manipulate an instrument (keys, valves, slides, strings, etc.), a musician also has to be adept at reading music: translating lines and dots on the page through their instrument into beautiful, coherent sounds. Beginning music students often struggle with the double-edged sword of trying to learn the mechanics of an instrument and the rudiments of music - simultaneously. And, because most music programs introduce music rudiments concurrently with instrumental training, students often receive less than adequate instruction on how to read music. The following method is one I discovered through my years as a clarinet instructor and is designed to help any student become a better reader...and ultimately a better player...
Music is a language. Have you ever been brought to tears through a somber, soulful melody? Or, heard a tune that made you so happy you felt like dancing? Just like language, music has the ability to create an image or evoke an emotion. In short, music and language are analogous. And, as with any language, you start by learning the basics, beginning with the alphabet. Here's where many students fall through the cracks; when learning to read music while playing an instrument, students tend to associate the notes on the page with the fingerings on their instrument rather than the actual notes themselves. Therefore, each time a student looks at a note, they translate that note into a mental fingering chart. With slow simple tunes, this laborious thought process works. But, what happens when the music becomes faster and more complex? This is where many students struggle and assume their fingers aren't facile enough, when in reality, it's their thought process at fault.
So, how do you improve your reading skills? The first step is to study your music without your instrument. Set a metronome to a very slow tempo and say the note names aloud IN RHYTHM. (Don't worry about saying the sharps or flats; just concentrate on the note name itself.) When you can say the note names in their correct rhythms, bump the metronome up by one setting. Repeat this process until you can't go any faster. As you do this, you'll discover places in the music where you stumble, and most likely these are the same spots you stumble over when trying to play the music. When you encounter these trouble spots, slow the metronome down to a speed in which you can accurately say the note names in rhythm. Then, incrementally increase your tempo until the trouble spots are at the same speed as the rest of the piece.
Now, you're ready to add your instrument. Set your metronome to the same slow tempo as when you first read the notes aloud and think the note names as you play. If you catch yourself defaulting to thinking of fingerings rather than notes, stop and go back. Changing the way you view the notes on the page may prove frustrating at first, but you will improve with practice and eventually become more fluent for your efforts. And, learning to view notes as letter names rather than fingerings will enable you to transfer your reading skills to different instruments with increased ease. (The fingering for C on a trumpet is vastly different than the fingering for C on a violin!)
The concept is simple: in order to read music, you have to become familiar with the alphabet - the notes themselves. Once you know your alphabet, you will be able to read melodies just as you read sentences; you will be able to read phrases just as you read paragraphs; and, you'll be able to read entire compositions just as you read books! As with any language, in order to become fluent, you have to start at the beginning...with your A-B-Cs...
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