minstrel: learning to read music

Heather Rose Jones hrjones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Wed Jan 8 21:47:30 PST 1997


I'm only beginning to dig out from under the holiday e-mail -- sorry if
this is belated.

On 2 Jan 1997, Amy Wilson wrote:

> Anyhow -- here's a topic for the new year.  I'm contemplating teaching a group
> of adults how to read music, from square one.  I'd love thoughts from this
> group on best approaches, any good teaching aids on the subject, etc.

I'll start off with the disclaimer that I learned to read music as a
child, so I can't know the entirety of the experience, however since my
primary experience was on the flute and I _did_ learn to read harp music
as an adult, I can speak from that angle.

The first thing you need is highly-motivated learners. Learning to read
music is _hard_ and you probably need to put in about a year of serious
study to get the basics down before you can slack off. The problem is that
reading music is not simply a matter of learning what the names of the
notes are and learning the proper finger (or whatever) position for those
notes are and learning timing and whatnot. There are two levels of
learning to read music -- just as there are of learning to read words. The
first level is decipherment. That's where I am currently in Sanskrit,
after one semester of study. You know what the symbols mean and you can
laboriously work through them. The second level comes when you stop having
to consciously process each symbol. The difference between phonics and
whole-word recognition; the difference between looking at the note and
thinking, "that means I have to put my hands _this_ way", and having your
hands work automatically as you see the note. You can study some books a
little and learn to _decipher_ music. But the only way to learn to _play_
from written music is to practice (oh no! the "p" word!) enough to make
the proper brain connections. That's seriously what it is: a matter of
creating new connections and pathways in the brain. And that can only be
done by the proper quantity of repetition. (This is also why it's easier
to learn such things as a child. It isn't _only_ that you have more time
and fewer distractions then, it's that a child's brain is designed to do
that sort of pathway-creation more easily.)

So, enough of theory -- what are some practical suggestions?

You have two basics to learn: notes and time-values. These are best
learned separately before trying to combine them. Find some practice
pieces where all the notes are the same length. For an SCA group,
Gregorian chants might make a fun source for these. Then learn time-values
either using improvised percussion or simply playing on a single note.
Then start combining the two in simple tunes and gradually work up to
something more challenging.

I'll make two suggestions that might seem odd. _Avoid_ "learning" on
highly-familiar tunes. You don't want to blur the lines between reading
the music and playing from memory. I'm not saying you should never
practice on anything you've ever heard, but at least half the material
should be stuff you can't hum from memory.

In your learning sessions, balance the material about half and half
between pieces you are practicing heavily and pieces you are
sight-reading. ("Sight-reading" doesn't have to mean you've never played
it before -- simply that you never _learned_ it.) When I started learning
to read harp music (as opposed to playing by ear), my greatest tendency
was to memorize the piece from the music and then perform it without
actually reading the music. (I.e., decipher > memorize > perform.) In
order to learn to play _from_ the music -- without constantly looking at
what my hands were doing -- I had to switch to doing a lot of
sight-reading of things I hadn't memorized and didn't know by ear. I'm
still not particularly good at sight-reading with the harp -- I can't do
more than one-note-at-a-time melodies. If I want to play anything more
complex, I still have to memorize it. This is not good.

Here are a few more suggestions based both on my childhood experiences and
on having taught music to a few adults.

- Buy a metronome and USE IT! When you're first learning, it will be very
hard to keep the tempo. But if you don't use a metronome (since very few
learners are capable of keeping an invariant beat while struggling with
the notes) you will not realize how ragged your tempo is. I know one
fellow who _thought_ he had learned a particular dance tune very nicely
... until he played it for actual dancers and discovered that there were
two places where he paused for an entire beat while he changed difficult
hand positions.

- If you're learning the instrument, as well as learning to read the
music, don't neglect those scales and arpeggios. It's that same
brain-patterning thing I was talking about before. Scales and arpeggios
are the building blocks of what will be the more difficult figures once
you get to more advanced music. If your brain+fingers can process
something as "five note run up starting on C" rather than having to
process it as "CDEFG" then you're ahead of the game.

- Once you've got a minimum of basics down, learn to play in ensemble --
whether unison or multi-part. And learn that essential ensemble skill: how
to keep going in spite of screwing up without losing your place or
throwing everybody else off.

- If you want to learn the _concept_ of reading music with a minimum of
complications from the instrument itself, use an instrument with a
"keyboard-like interface" (to use modern terminology), i.e., one where you
have a direct one-to-one correspondence between notes on the page and
pitch-making objects on the instrument. The most common instrument for
this, of course, is the piano, but a harp works very nicely too (up until
you deal with key changes and accidentals), and for that matter a pan-pipe
could serve the same function, although I wouldn't recommend it! A plucked
psaltery can also work nicely, although they're less common.

Anyway, those are just a few random thoughts.

Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn
(oh, did I mention that my mother is a retired music teacher?)


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