Many of the adults who come to me for singing lessons have never learnt to read music, and I can see they think this is a bad thing, just a little bit shameful, like not being able to ride a bike.
I tell them I don’t expect them to be able to, because, honestly, how could they if they’ve never tried? It’s a strange logic, this idea that there’s shame in not being able to do something you’ve never done before. As if reading music or parallel parking or being able to dance the tango are skills we’re all born with and if we forget, well, that’s on us.
I also tell them that a lack of music reading skills has never stopped anyone from making music, and it’s definitely not going to stop them.
Still, if you’ve never done it before or not been shown how to really interpret the notes it’s too easy to imbue these little black dots with what pretty much amounts to magical qualities, even as millions of people open their mouths to sing without being able to read a single note.
The gap between those who can and those who can’t can seem huge. And with the focus so often on tests and doing it well (or not at all), the sheer joy of music-making can be diminished, with barriers in place before you even have the chance to get started. And note reading can often seem like one of the biggest barriers.
Well, my friend, I’m on a mission to bring the supposedly celestial practice of reading music back down to earth. I’ll help you see it for what it really is, which is the written form of a language we all speak already (feeling rhythms, humming melodies, tapping our feet), whether we’re aware of the formal ‘grammar’ or not.
Knowing just a little bit about how notes move can be helpful. You can think of it as like being handed a map for somewhere new and, at the very least, being able to follow the main path. In this case, you don’t even need to know the names of the notes or anything else. Instead, looking at the direction in which the notes move can tell you a lot about how a melody will sound.
And, now, back to my students. Some can already read a bit and some a lot, some are starting from scratch and don’t know what they want. Others simply want to sing and only learn enough to follow the path, and then there are those who want to create their own paths, whether it involves learning about the notes or not. Which just goes to show that when it comes to music we’re all following our own path, anyway, no matter our levels of ability or knowledge or experience.
And so that’s what we do in our lessons. Sometimes we stop to pick flowers or admire the view, but we always continue to move forward, one note at a time.