Reading Music

I’ve been thinking about reading music the past couple of days, and about the Suzuki method and how it works.  I have a missing piece – or, rather, the opposite of that – in my ability to evaluate the Suzuki method.  Unlike most Suzuki beginners, I did learn to read music many years ago.  Way back when, somebody taught me that “EGBDF are the lines of the treble clef” and that the spaces are FACE.  I learned about keys and rests and time signatures, and myriad other little details that continue to be lodged in my brain.  The brain did not remotely retain the whole picture, but compared to a newbie four year old, I definitely know a whole heck of a lot about how to read music!

Let’s think about this – four year olds don’t really take up the violin very often.  They can and do, but without literacy in their first language, it would be folly to attempt to teach a child of four to read music, so we don’t do it really.  It would be a waste of the educator’s and the child’s and parent’s time.  While music is a “language,” in reality it’s a kind of meta-language.  We need our first or some other language (Italian can come in handy) to talk about it.  Kids of four are getting there with their acquisition of their mother tongues.  Kids of six or seven have it for sure, and that’s really a much more common early time to start to play an instrument.  I remember in the Wichita Public Schools you had to be in the fourth grade for strings, the fifth grade for brass/woodwinds, so 10-11 years old.  That brings in the more pragmatic concern about being able to schlep/keep up with your instrument, of course!

But I definitely learned to read music before I was 12 years old – an important point.  I knew this stuff when my brain was still very spongy, before the fossilization of puberty hit, when learning language gets much harder, and before the further concretization of early adulthood, which makes it harder still.  So I have a huge brain-properties related leg up on other adult beginners when considering the possibility of learning to read music well.  I don’t know how many beginners working on Suzuki would even be using the music very much, the more I’ve thought about it.  I think the method teaches it directly starting in Book Four, but I’m not too sure.

Personally, I use the music a whole lot.  The degree to which I’m “reading music,” however, is also important to consider. Like a good Suzuki Kid, I’m relying mostly on my knowledge of what the pieces sound like, and using the notes on the page to help cue me as to the intervals, the accidentals, and the big-picture reminders about which “section” of a given piece I’m on.  I’m certainly not thinking, “D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# D” as I play a D major scale.  I have to shift modes completely if I want to do that – I can, but it takes me time.  It’s not “online processing,” as we talk about in neurology.

But I can, in rare, lucid moments, look at a note and know in a flash which finger to plunk down.  I can’t name the note when I do that, and the capability reveals itself only sometimes, but it happens.

I’ve decided that ultimately, reading music properly is really not too important for me and my enjoyment of this process of learning and playing.  I have no need to be working up multiple pieces at once that I haven’t memorized, like Teacher does when she has two or three gigs going at a time, for example.  All I want to do for now is make music in my living room, and so far I’m doing it.

Thanks for reading.


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