minstrel: learning to read (was: Happy New Year)

Monica Cellio mjc at telerama.lm.com
Sat Jan 4 09:33:15 PST 1997

I would actually recommend working with a fixed-pitch instrument (keyboard,
harp, computer program, whatever) rather than a woodwind unless you already
know how to play the woodwind.  The reasoning is this: on a woodwind, you
can produce a range of pitches with the same fingering by changing the way
you blow.  If you don't already have the practice to control your breathing,
it'll be a lot harder for you to learn what such-and-such a note (or 
interval) sounds like if you don't know whether you've played it right or 
are off by a quarter tone.

(Of course, you'll need to check the relative tuning of whatever instrument
you use anyway.)

While it's not strictly necessary to use any instrument in learning to 
read music, I highly recommend it.  Voice is just another woodwind, after 

Having said all that, I'd like to point out that reading music and ear 
training ("that note you just played is a D" or "those two notes are a 
fourth apart") are two different things. Don't sweat the latter just yet.

Reading music has two components: knowing what note to produce, and 
producing it.  They are separate but inter-related tasks, and both amount
to memorization.  If you play only one instrument you can, in theory, take
a shortcut ("that note, whose name I don't know, means cover these 3 holes"),
but you'll get in trouble the first time you encounter a funny key signature.

So the first step is learning the note names.  There are mneumonics for
this, and you just have to keep practicing.  (I used to be bad at bass clef
and had never done anything with alto clef; now I'm almost comfortable with
bass clef and only bad at alto clef.)  You'll probably need to work
with someone who can correct you, unless you come across a tutorial of 
some sort.  (I know there exist computer programs that fill this tutorial
role, but I don't think any of them are especially cheap.  Sorry, I don't
know their names; I've just heard people talking about them.)

The next step is producing the note, and this depends on your instrument.
Any beginner-level book aimed at that instrument should be helpful here.
If your instrument is voice, then you've got a slightly harder task ahead
of you -- you can't just finger thus-and-such and produce a G, after all. :-)
However, most a capella singers do *not* have perfect pitch, and just pick
a range of notes that they're comfortable with.  Or, in the case of (say)
a choir, someone will provide you with the starting pitch.

Singers have to learn relative intervals, both to recognize them and to 
produce them.  Recognizing them takes practice; producing them takes more
practice but there are some mneumonics.  (For example, if you need a minor
third, think of the opening 2 notes to "Greensleeves".  For a perfect fourth,
think "here comes the bride".  Etc.)

Even if you'll be singing the song a capella eventually, there's no shame
at all in playing it over and over on some instrument with which you're
comfortable to help you learn it.  Reading music and sight-reading are 
different skills.  (Reading music will *let* you play it on an insstrument.)

I think I'm rambling, so I'll close for now.  I hope this is helpful to 


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