Monday, November 11, 2013

Reading Is Really Handy


First off, let me say that reading music is optional -- for any musician, not just drummers. There are plenty of sectors in the music business where reading just isn't called for, and there are others where the inability to read is a deal breaker.

Unfortunately, for some reason reading has received a bit of a bad rap. I've met excellent musicians who can't read and some whose reading outshines their playing. I’ve also met plenty who absolutely refuse to read, and it’s a prejudice that I really don’t understand.

One belief is that reading -- or any kind of study -- will limit creativity. That is an amazingly misguided viewpoint. How can learning more about music and your instrument be a limitation? In truth, refusing to study cuts you off from creativity big time!

There's also the perception that reading is for specialized situations. Yes, symphonies, big bands and studio work call for good reading chops. But these are very small sectors, and not everyone wants to go there.

The main complaints seem to be that reading is (a) hard to learn, (b) hard to do and (c) limited in its usefulness.

Anyone who has learned how to read as an adult through an adult literacy program will tell you that it was doable once a suitable approach was presented. Like learning to read language, learning to read music is not that hard if presented in an appropriate manner. Simple rhythms can be equally simple when put on paper. And as you get better at reading, you can tackle more complex examples.

And how about limited use? OK, you might never be in a situation that requires reading, but that's not the point. Written music was invented not to put obstacles in our path but to allow us to retain and share musical ideas. If I have a good idea for a blog topic, I write it down. What if I have an idea for a lick or a rhythm? Well I can write that down too, and then it’s not lost to the ether.

To me, the best reasons for learning to read are so you can take it with you and so you can unlock anything that's written down. A teacher can pack more info onto a single written page than you could ever memorize by the end of a lesson. And if you forget what the lesson was about, there it is, on the page. You can also pick up just about any drum book or magazine and work out the ideas found there.

There is a trend with most popular instruments to use a system called tablature. Some guitarists find tablature more approachable than musical notation. Not surprising -- they have a lot of notes and fingers to manage. Drum tablature is also available, but if you look carefully you'll find that it isn't much different from standard music notation. If you're going to put in the effort to learn a system, why not just go to the source. I find tablature useful and sometimes use it as a type of shorthand. I find this easy to do because I already know how to read. Tablature is just reading in a slightly different form.

So if you've been putting off learning to read, perhaps it's time to have another look at it. You may be surprised at how easy it is to grasp the basics.
-rb