I figured an article about reading might as well start with a Shakespeare quote, no? This is a question that I have answered and discussed for many years with students and other musicians. Reading the language of music is a lot like reading the English language—which you are dong right now. Do you remember being a child and as you learned more words and vocabulary rules you were able to gain more information and knowledge? In this article I want to discuss some of the benefits of reading music, and how ultimately it gives us knowledge and confidence to be better musicians.
A STUDENT’S STORY
Years ago I had a student—we will call him William (No, not Shakespeare). William (Will) was quite a good drummer; he had great hand/foot control, a nice touch on the drums, and very musical ideas when he played. The one thing that was always a roadblock in our lessons was when Will had to read some music. Even the most basic of patterns seemed to trouble him. “Just play it for me,” Will would say (heard this one before, teachers?). If my students are putting mental energy and focus into an exercise and still have some difficulty, I will play it for them and work from a different angle. But Will was different. He didn’t want to put the effort forth; he didn’t think he needed to know how to read to become the player he wanted to be.
We continued to work on songs and music concepts, but Will refused to read music. “I don’t see Neil Peart reading music during a Rush concert,“ he would say. We discussed why this was, and that Neil Peart can read music, and that he also writes the lyrics for the band’s material. This caught Will’s attention. A drummer can read and write music and lyrics…wow! This went hand in hand with parts I had written out to a Rush song that Will wanted to learn, but he had to read the music to get to point B (Sweet motivation. Thanks, Neil).
Needless to say, we continued to breakdown Will’s fear of reading music, and he became quite a good reader. His playing was still musical and his touch wonderful, but there was more confidence and attitude in his approach because of this accomplishment. Way to go, Will!
BE “WILL”ING TO GIVE IT A TRY
For some, reading music comes easy, for others it takes some time. Like anything in life, with time and effort it becomes easier and a valuable tool for us to draw on if we need it. In my teaching, I can’t count how many times I have heard, “I don’t want to read. It is too hard.” First of all, my students are not allowed to use the word hard at our lessons. We use the word different. When we say something is hard, or worse yet, impossible, we automatically put up the “I can’t do it” wall. When we use the word different it is less defeating, and really, anything new we are working on is just different. As we persist, exercises, patterns and songs become less different and more familiar (It is all in the wording, Shakespeare).
If you are a player like many others out there who would like to learn to read, or to get better at what they already know, there is hope. I know students are afraid of reading. As a teacher, putting Zappa’s “The Black Page” in front of a student at the first lesson and saying, “Go!” doesn’t work. The first step is to find a teacher in your area that you are comfortable with, and who will understand what you want to work on, and what your abilities are. Be clear that you want to learn to read or improve on your music reading skills. You must be patient, take it slow and don’t be afraid to ask about rhythm patterns or music symbols that you unsure of. You will save yourself a lot of guess work.
HOW “WILL” THIS HELP MY PLAYING
As we learn to read better, our understanding of new rhythms and ones that we already know become stronger. This also opens up the door to picking up drum books and magazines to learn new licks and techniques from the many great sources out there. There are far too many benefits of reading music to discuss in one article, but here are some ways that being able to read has helped me in my own music career.
I teach private lessons and work on a variety of material with my students, most of which requires that I am able to read and write music patterns and licks. I also do a lot of freelance and studio work, some requiring reading charts already prepared, but most material I will have to chart out myself. As well as being able to read standard chart notation, I can also read number charts (the Nashville number system)—different to read. This is a skeleton of the chord changes and arrangement of a song, but I have been on several sessions because I have this skill. As well, I teach hand drumming, and we use box charts. It is also a different way to read music, but necessary to have a diverse career as a drummer/percussionist.
Being able to read has also allowed me to communicate better with musicians, producers, and arrangers, even if the gig or session doesn’t require reading. We are able to discuss details on figures and sections of a song using the music language. Having these skills is valuable and forms a sense of trust with an employer who may hire or refer you for more work in the future.
WHERE THERE’S A “WILL”
There’s a way for all of us to improve our reading skills. We can always refine what we know and make it a little sharper. Music will always be about feel and having great listening skills (big ears, as they say). But in music, as in any career we have, the more skills we possess the more valuable we are to an employer. And isn’t that what we want, to be a valuable, employable musician? Just ask Will.
Jayson Brinkworth is a professional musician, educator, author and owner of Music In The House based in Regina, Canada. Find him online here.