You (Yes, YOU!) Can Read Music Better!

musicianship Sep 25, 2016

Yes, YOU can read music better – faster, more easily and fluently – whether you’re already an accomplished musician or just beginning your musical journey.

Why am I so certain? Because of what I learned in my 19 years of teaching that subject exactly at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music.

Having been a student at Curtis myself, I understood the students I was teaching. They were the cream of the crop: experienced, creative, skilled musicians. You wouldn’t think they needed more training in how to read music. Many of them didn’t think so either at first.

So I tried in my teaching to demonstrate to them the foundational principles of note reading that I had learned from my Curtis teachers in my student days. This is a different way of looking at the entire subject of note reading, an approach that reveals the processes of note reading in a way that allows you to apply them to music reading in general and not just to the challenges of a particular piece or passage. It’s less about solving problems than it is about the way you read music.

Most of us don’t think about how we read music most of the time. And then we are faced with a music reading challenge – a difficult passage with jumps or lots of ledger lines, the need to sightread quickly, or playing more than one line of music at a time.

Suddenly we struggle because our “automatic reading” skills don’t work in this situation. And we have no backup plan, no resources, because we were never taught the key principles to good music reading.

So I would like to tell you those principles that I taught in my classes over all those years. There are three key principles for you to understand, and I have given you some ways to put those principles into action in your daily music reading.

Principle 1: Connection

The dots on the page that are our musical notes are merely a visual representation of the note itself. I like to think of a note as having four “identifiers:” the dot on the page, its letter name, its pitch and our personal method of producing that pitch, whether we sing the pitch or play it on our instrument. For us harpists that would be the string we use to play that pitch.

All four of those parts must be connected in our mind and ears. If just one of those connections is weak, our music will suffer. For instance, if you can play the note on the correct string but you don’t know its name, it will be more difficult to understand the structure of the piece and harder to memorize your music securely.

Principle 2: Coordination

Music reading is a coordination of processes. It involves the pace of our reading from one note to the next and requires our reading pace to match with our playing pace. In other words, we can’t play faster than we can read, or at least, not accurately. And not being able to play as fast as you can read is equally frustrating. Adding the additional challenge of reading two lines at once – right hand and left hand, for instance – multiplies the complexity of coordination.

Principle 3: Consistency

This is simply that if we want to be better music readers, we need to practice the necessary skills regularly. While it is true that your music reading will improve naturally over time, without conscious and focused effort, it may not achieve the fluency you want.

And as promised, here are a few action steps so you can start using consistently to become a better music reader.

  1. Say and Play. My students hear me recommend this technique all the time as a never-fail method for learning hard passages and memorizing music. You simply say the names of the notes in rhythm and at a steady tempo, either as you play or before you play the passage. But if each day you choose a passage or an exercise or etude to practice with this technique, you will see your note reading dramatically improve. The most important thing here is to keep a steady tempo; that’s how you start coordinating all those important processes.

  2. Reading Groupings. This technique is a variation of the Say and Play technique above. It develops your ability to read ahead. Instead of reading one note, naming it and then playing it, you will read groups of two notes, four notes or even more. Easy groupings to use are beats with two eighth notes or four sixteenth notes. Name all the notes in the group, play all those notes, then name the notes in the next group, play them, etc. You will get the most benefit by using a metronome to help you keep a steady pace.

  3. Say one, Play one. This is my favorite technique for harpists and pianists. Play the right hand line while you say the names of the notes in the left hand line. And then do the reverse: play the left hand line while you say the right hand line. It’s a challenge, but it will work miracles for your reading!

And some additional pointers:

  • Always use the metronome for music reading practice. Remember you need to coordinate processes, to have all the parts synchronized. That requires a steady practice pace.
  • The above techniques work even better when you sing the note names, instead of just saying them.
  • For more practice ideas, you can read this earlier blog post.
  • Make music reading practice a daily (or at the least weekly) habit. Consistency is crucial.
  • Make it a game. Enjoy the practice. The rewards of your practice will be worth it, I promise!

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