Reading Music (it's really not that bad)

JKM's third year is well and truly underway and it's been a brilliant (and somewhat hectic) start to Term 1. The calendar has filled up very quickly with returning students and some brand new ones (welcome!) and I'd like to remind new enquiries it's best to try and book before the term starts to ensure we can find a time for you. 

Enough admin, today we'll be looking into the fearsome beast that is reading sheet music. I've spoken at length about this before but as I have several new students on board I'd like to return to this troublesome subject. As my students know, I like to develop their skills in technical and aural work, theory, composition, improv and of course reading sheet music. Reading seems like a simple enough concept so why do so many musicians shy away from it? 

I blame the teachers. When I was learning I was consistently told 'this is too hard for you, this is too advanced' and it made those pieces seems big and scary. Instead of answering my questions or explaining a concept I was told I'd 'learn it later'. This is a terrible way to go about things. Time signatures for example. I never, ever, had them explained to me. 'If it's 3/4 or 4/4 then there's 3 or 4 beats in the bar'. What about 6/8? 'Then there's 6 beats.' But why isn't it 6/4? 'You'll learn that later'. 



The most annoying part is that music theory is all actually very simple. I believe that back in the day when musicians were held in the highest esteem they believed it necessary to convolute the whole thing in order to make music as exclusive and mysteriously unattainable as possible. Now that the value of musicians has somewhat diminished (play for exposure anyone?) the convoluted world of music theory only serves to discourage future musicians from learning. 

Now to be fair, sheet music can certainly look intimidating. Piano is one of the very few instruments where you are required to read two clefs (bass and treble) at the same time. This is essentially reading two stories, in two languages with two different alphabets. Add to this rhythm, timing, coordination and reading a bar ahead...? Seems pretty tricky. Now add expression, dynamics, accents, tempo changes and by now you're probably thinking this was a terrible idea and you should stop now. 

Fear not. When it comes to reading music, and especially sight-reading (seeing music for the first time and playing it hands together) there are a lot of processes. I've narrowed it down to 10.

1. Reading treble clef
2. Reading bass clef
3. Reading them at the same time
4. Finding the keys for what you're reading and playing them
5. Playing the keys for both hands at the same time
6. Applying the rhythm and timing of what you're reading to what you're playing
7. Coordinating the separate rhythms in each hand
8. Applying articulation/dynamics
9. Reading a bar ahead so that the song plays smoothly
10. Applying individual expression. 

When you're sight-reading at your full potential all of these processes become subconscious. To get to that state it's easiest to go through these processes one at a time until you're confident with each one. This. Will. Take. Time. If I had a dollar for every time a student said 'I should be faster at this by now'....

Think of it this way. If you're reading this blog I assume you can read English fairly well. It's a subconscious process, you don't have to think about it. This is because you practice reading every day without even thinking about it. Texts, ads, tweets, road signs, peoples' t-shirts. If you were exposed to sheet music as often you'd be reading treble and bass clef at the same level you read English. You can increase this exposure by practicing more often. If practicing that often isn't possible for you then I'm afraid you'll just need to accept that this. Will. Take. Time. 

I have always taught my students to read treble and bass clef at the same time. Teaching only one clef (usually treble) automatically makes it 'the easy one' whilst bass clef is permanently thought of as difficult. This is ridiculous, wastes a huge amount of time and essentially makes reading a whole heap harder than necessary. I don't tell my students that reading is hard. I tell them it's easy and that they can 100% do it. One of my newest students is 6 years old, and in her last lesson she sight-read through an entire piece hands together. She's only had 8 lessons. 

Now this is probably more to do with the fact that she's an incredibly clever and positive little human than my teaching but the point is she's soaked up everything I've taught her because I never said she couldn't. I believe she can do it, and therefore she thinks she can. And she can. 

I consistently push my students to practice sight-reading hands together, it's a huge mental workout and very good for your brain. It also eliminates 'the bad clef' because neither clef is more difficult than the other. Reading hands together makes reading hands separately seem crazy simple in comparison which in turn makes reading hands together a lot easier. It's a happy little cycle. 

I think that's probably enough about reading for now, I'll get into rhythm and coordination another time but in the meantime have a go at applying the above processes to your own practice. And remember: This. Will. Take. Time.