Monday, October 5, 2009

notes on a page

Music is not notes on a page. Over the years, I've met so many people who had that evil piano teacher. You've heard of her. She's German with blue hair and she insists her students learn to READ before they do anything. It says so in the piano book, so it must be right! Right?


Don't get ME wrong. Reading is important in some situations but it's only one small piece of an enormous pie. I just read The Music Lesson by virtuoso Bassist Victor Wooten. In his book he says that there are 10 elements of music:


Nowhere in this list does he mention reading. Reading is discussed in the book, but it's not the book's main focus. Wooten compares learning music to learning one's native tongue. When we learn our native language do we learn to read before we can speak? Of course not. So why is it that so many music teachers and method books still want to teach students to read at the very beginning? At this time I have no idea. I'll be exploring it later.

I've also met so many musicians who can't really play anything unless they have a page of printed music in front of them. Ask them to improvise over a chord progression and most of them can't do it. Have you ever met someone who can't offer anything to a conversation that isn't written down on a page?

When we speak, most of the time we're improvising or jamming. Victor Wooten says that we learn how to speak by "jamming" with all the language masters around us. We make tons of mistakes, but the masters gently correct us while making us feel comfortable. We learn to read later when it's appropriate.

Most musicians I've met fall into 2 categories: Those Who Can Jam and can't read so well (if at all) and Those Who Can't Jam and can read well. It's much easier to teach a student how to read if they already can jam. It's very difficult to teach someone how to Jam who has had years of reading drilled into them.

As music teachers we must realize that music is a language and as such mirrors our spoken languages. Why not teach them in the same way?


  1. True. Took piano lessons beginning at age 5 by "reading" music. Never really progressed much until I got into a band when I was 15 and learned to "play" and then progressed a lot.

  2. Luckily I started singing before I learned to read and I messed around with the guitar on my own and loosely guided by friends during my 14th year. By then I could jam and was ready to read the year after. You were still open-minded at 15. That's a great open year in someone's life. I started playing shows when I was 15.

  3. You forgot the third type of me: Those who can't really read well or jam.

    But, along the lines of what you're getting at here, and maybe you could help me out: I've been trying to develop a new level of "jamming" where I'm truly improvising more and more and copying and applying learned licks less and less. So, it comes down to vocalization through the instrument (guitar for me).

    So to help, when practicing scales I sometimes vocalize the notes as I go. It's helped my 'ear' a lot.

    Any other suggestions?

  4. I can jam and read music well.

    I teach little kids piano and I stress the importance of reading AND the concept that you offer, that music is not on the page, but in the player's ear, heart, mind, and gut. I teach both ideas.

    I happened to have learned to read before I could mess about properly on my own, but I never let that get in my way. Good article, Doug. Go get 'em!

  5. @Oneacre- vocalizing scales sounds great. A few things come to mind that might help. What if you turn on the radio and find a person speaking. Listen to their phrasing as they speak. Imitate that rhythm with your guitar. You could also play with your eyes closed and let your ears guide your fingers instead of your eyes. Another great way of soloing would be to listen to the solos of other instruments such as saxophone or trumpet or any other instrument besides guitar.

  6. @David-How old were you when you learned how to read music? What or who gave you the courage to explore improv?
    Thanks for the kind words!