Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Do I Have to Learn all that Music Stuff?

These questions arise many times every year. Sometimes they're posed by people calling DSM for lessons and sometimes they're e-mailed to MusickEd.com by people searching the internet for uh.... 'music education'.

'I want to learn music, but do I have to learn how to read music?' Or 'I just want to play for fun and not learn any of that theory stuff.'

There are a bunch of fantastic tales about guys who 'just pick up an instrument and play!' and countless other threads to be found regarding famous musicians who 'can't read music'. There's no doubt that it can be done and done well.

The following jazzers are all said to have limited music reading ability; trumpeter Chet Baker, guitarists Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, and pianist Erroll Garner. They all played wonderfully yet each struggled with (music) reading during their lives and some
admittedly sadly never mastered the skill. Some of these stories are exaggerated. Erroll Garner may not have been able to sight read Chopin Ballades, but he could certainly explain the theory behind the chords and melodies.

The pop world is littered with formidable players who do not read music. There is the somewhat dubious tale of Prince handing Beyonce a piece of sheet music at a recording session only to have her gasp in horror and then sheepishly admit she couldn't read music. The nameless symbol-one was so taken aback that he reportedly abruptly ended the date and told Miss Knowles to 'come back when you've learned'. (Note to readers; it's a great story... but repeated searches for verification of the myth have turned up nada. If anyone has more insight, by all means, do tell.)

The bottom line is that some folks are gifted with great ears, musical minds and the dogged determination to play their instrument at a very high level. Eventually they learn the 'language' and are able to 'converse' with fellow musicians to make great art. The people who are searching for 'shortcuts' online or calling a music school for help are most likely not in this camp.

Searching for a shortcut to learning music is like learning a language but never developing the skills to read or write, building a house using only a screwdriver, or being an artist using only a pencil. The more knowledge you gain and the more tools you acquire, the more you can do with your instrument. This makes learning more fun and far less frustrating.

With the correct approach however, there is no doubt that anyone and everyone can learn musical concepts and become musically 'literate' on their chosen instrument. With that in mind, the question 'Do I need to know how to read music?' might be answered in true Socratic fashion by any potential teacher like so; 'How do you propose I teach you music?'.

In putting the MusickEd.com Kore Series software together it was blatantly obvious that a step by step approach of introducing concepts using the actual language of music was the best idea for both potential students and educators who would be using the product. Note reading, ear training and theory components (such as articulations, dynamics, tempo markings, etc.) are all important pieces of a large puzzle that of course also includes 'hands on' and 'how to' for each instrument.

We have been using the software curriculum for about 2 years on campus at DSM. The program provides teachers with lots of options and it's a great way for students to gauge their progress. Almost every student (both young and old) are delighted to know that they are following a set course of study rather than meandering through a random set of tasks that often lead to frustration.

The 'market' (and in particular, the internet) is flooded with cheat-sheet short cuts that sound more like used car deals than actual curricula. This approach almost always causes frustration for both the learner and the instructor because what's missing is a clear and consistent flow of sequential information.

So if you are one of the chosen few who are truly musically gifted and highly determined, then you may not need to learn 'music' in order to play your instrument at a high level. If you are like the rest of us however, be certain to choose a solid curriculum and a teacher who will help you through it for the best results!


Paul said...

The short answer is "yes." You need to learn how to read, you need to learn how to read. This is the same as asking, "do I need to learn the alphabet? Then do I need to learn all of these words?" Yes, you do!

You can play by ear for fun, but you will soon find that you grow frustrated as you try to expand your musical vocabulary beyond simple songs. Knowing how to read music opens up the ENTIRE world of music to you. What more could one possibly ask for! :-)

Anonymous said...

Along the same lines, I once had the opportunity to work with a world-class contemporary Christian pianist/songwriter/producer who told us he had "no formal training." Well, it was abundantly clear thisman knew his stuff, from technique to theory and everything in between. While his statement may have been factual, I'm sure that somewhere along the line he must have been taught certain concepts, even if it was just from reading a book or hanging around people who did have formal training.

Likewise, I once read an interview with a famous jazz saxophonist (who I will alow to remain nameless) who was downplaying his formal training and early learning experiences. Well, I had to laugh because I happened to be acquainted with this person when we were both in high school, and I know a little something of his background. And again, his training may not have been "formal," but he certain had substantial influences from gifted educators.

Those encounters have always made me a little skeptical who claim to have no training or "education" in music.

Elliott said...

The Guardian UK (my fave newspaper over here) invited me to comment on their article on music education.

So for those of you who are passionate about good musical education, may I humbly invite you to read and comment on the article.
It's here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/20/gcses.schools

...and quite a dialogue best thru the Cyber

Elliott Randall

Nico said...

I've always been of the perspective that to dominate anything, you need to understand it... and reading/writing music + theory is all part of this!

music teachers said...

There are no easy steps than to get through those hardships in learning music. I have also been through it as many others also did. There are a lot of music teachers resources on the internet that can help you in learning music.

Scott Ashby said...

Why is it that people are so eager to brag about "not reading music" or "having no formal training?" Is it a pride thing in trying to take credit for everything you know and do? I have pity on people who count their lack of reading ability as a virtue.

MusickEd.com said...

Scott, thanks for stopping by and posting your comment - the new format at musicteachercafe.ning.com looks great. I hope to poke around a little more thoroughly next week.

Music educators have done a woefully poor job of promotion through the years; beginning with Lowell Mason and the Boston School Board and continuing now with 'Save the Music' programs (which are couched as being 'for the kids' but in reality, they're simply trying desperately to save band, choir and orchestra jobs).

Instead of capitalizing on the popularity of Rock Band, Guitar Hero and all other advances in technology, we choose to stick our collective heads in the ground and wonder why school music programs are dwindling.

There's a right way to go about it that will lead to a lifetime of joy for all who choose to partake. It's about relationships as well as delivery.

Part of the current 'process' is teaching students to play Jingle Bells by the week after Thanksgiving - what adult cares about that? What kid in 2009 for that matter? That is equivalent to going for golf lessons and spending the first 6 months learning to master 'the windmill hole'.

We need to promote music education as a viable commodity without relying on academia for a market. It's dwindling anyway. The general public need to hear the message: enjoy the process of learning the language of music. There's no need to become a 'star', just enjoy music as a hobby like you would golf, gardening or reading.

If we are successful, we can rejuvenate a struggling music education profession through private enterprise and 'save the music' programs will be a thing of the past.