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Musically Speaking: Reading music: Breaking the myth
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JJ Rocks Article # 58: Reading music: Breaking the myth
The greatest myth in music is that there are only two schools of thought when it comes to musicians. One focuses on those who read music and the other focuses on the ones who play by ear. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Reading standard notation can be very helpful if you need to play something that you never heard before and don’t have a recording to learn from. Musicians who play in orchestras that have to go to a gig and back up a singer who just arrived in town on a moments notice would be one good example. But that is not true of most musical situations. Usually writing anything down should just be a way to practice a song until you can play it on your own. And let’s keep in mind that standard musical notation was the only way to record music for hundreds of years. But with the invention of electronic recording, having to read music is narrowed down to only a few categories.
The first is the one that I previously mentioned that includes getting a large group of musicians together either in a symphony or a show band to play a piece of music on the spot that is either very complex and hard to commit to memory, or just something that they have never played before. The second is when individual musicians have to go into a studio and play something the he or she never heard. And of course many of you can think of other reasons to master reading standard musical notation like being a church keyboardist and others. But how many of you can tell me why a local high school band instructor has his students playing in public performing standard jazz tunes and has them all reading sheet music during the performance? And not to add insult to injury, who could tell me why he stands there and reads the same charts with his students after so many years of playing these songs?
A few days ago I had two young brothers in my class. And when I said “Let’s do that blues tune that I gave you for homework”, one of them opened up his book to the song (chord charts only). That’s when I turned to his brother and said “What’s wrong with this picture?” Then he said “He doesn’t know the song”. That’s my point in a nutshell. Reading music should be used (in most cases) only to learn a song and not to play it! Once it is in your head and you can hear it then you have the freedom to emphasize parts of the melody, improvise freely over the changes with out breaking your thought patterns by staring at the music stand, and most of all, having the ability to carry the song in your head and play it when ever you want without being a slave to a piece of paper. Now that’s what music is all about.
Now what about the player who only plays by ear? In my lifetime that usually referred to someone who merely imitated songs on their instruments like a comedian impersonates someone’s voice. It’s all about mimicking and the person doing so has no knowledge of music what so ever. So as you can see, most of you out there are not in either one of those categories. And I’m guessing that you are also proud to admit it.
I’m always trying to stress the simple math of music structure while also attempting to change the teaching style of an art form that is always being presented in a manner that steers most new students into believing that they have to be one or the other of the musicals myths that I mentioned earlier. But regardless, students always have their choices. One is to go to a music school to become a teacher and carry on a tradition that has been taught by someone who has gone to school to become a teacher ETC, ETC. The other is to focus on what’s really important out there in the professional musical world and stray away from music classes that have you singing in a different language, or learning about the bedroom behavior of a classical composer who has been dead for two hundred years. The choice is in a simple formula that you grew up on. The shortest distant between two musical points that start with your dreams and end with them turning into realities is a straight line. And it can be done by just learning the math of music along with intense ear and memory training. Just don’t forget that in this over complicated world of musical instruction it may be wise to trim the fat, but very unwise to cut the corners
– JJ Rocks, St. Croix, Virgin Islands