06 Nov Don’t Read Music? That’s OK …
Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog in Your Quest to Play Piano.
In my years of giving live workshops and hearing from thousands of viewers of my television programs, one constant fallacy has remained prevalent among what I affectionately call “wannabe” recreational piano players.
That fallacy is: Being a good note reader is a requirement to becoming a good piano player.
If you want to become a concert pianist and play concerts with symphony orchestras for a living, or make a living as an accompanist, then that probably is true. But assuming your interest lies instead in playing just about any and every other style, be it pop, jazz, blues, country, gospel, etc. for purely recreational reasons, then I disagree heartily with that belief. I would like to dispel that myth for many of you pining to start playing more piano, yet feeling hamstrung due to your lack of note reading prowess.
Although you can be good reader and a good player, you can also be a terrible reader and a good player. Even more interesting (or frustrating for those to whom this applies) is the case of being a great reader and a terrible piano player. Those tend to be the people who, when you ask them to sit down and play a tune, reply “Oh, I’d love to, but I didn’t bring my music.”
Somewhere along the line, the tail started wagging the dog when we started regarding music notation – ink on paper – and the ability to read it with more importance than what it was recording – the music itself. Sheet music isn’t music – it is music notation. Music is what you listen to, not what you read. Sheet music is simply a recording device.
I think it is important to realize that traditional music notation was developed long before the technology existed to record anything aurally. It was the only way you could hope to record and preserve something to give to someone else. Not surprisingly, it does a very adequate job of describing the popular music of the era when it was developed, that which we now call “classical” music.
However, for the popular music of this era, traditional music notation is at best a somewhat crude, not very accurate way to record on paper what is occurring in the aural dimension. The analogy is of a translator being forced to improvise while translating from one language to another because the words simply don’t exist in the other language. Similarly, there are myriad situations when traditional music notation doesn’t contain the “words” to accurately describe the music being played in many popular genres. How do you notate accurately the incredible swing feel of Oscar Peterson’s melodic lines while improvising, or the great, funky syncopation of great New Orleans Style players like Dr. John? The answer is: you can’t. The “words” simply don’t exist in the language of traditional music notation. The fact is, for non-classical styles of music, even if you become a good notation reader, traditional sheet music will not give you the information you need to play the style correctly due to the lack of “words” in traditional notation to describe non-classical techniques. Let there be no mistake, notation is an incredible aid in telling you what notes to play. It just can’t tell you how to play them.
Guitar players finally confronted this situation head-on years ago when they developed an entirely new type of notation known as tablature, which contains the graphic symbols, or “words,” needed to accurately describe the things that are required of a guitar player to play popular styles correctly. Although piano players haven’t resorted to an entirely new “language” of notation like tablature, those who play non-classical styles professionally have for years used a style of notation that, unfortunately, is rarely taught by traditional piano teachers. It is called lead sheet notation and is dramatically easier to read. It was not developed to be easier as a “shortcut.” It was developed to allow a player of non-classical music to get to what is important, which is playing the tune well versus reading the tune well.
Because of this, I feel it tragic and sad that most beginners spends such an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to become good sheet music readers when, in fact, what they are trying to do is become good players. The vast majority of beginning students never get to a level of proficiency that allows them to have fun playing things they want to play, and thus, they drop out and consider themselves a failure at being able to play the piano. The reality is that they are failed notation readers, not failed piano players. The piano wasn’t the problem… it was the piano music.
Professionals know that their livelihood depends on their playing ability, not on their reading ability. When is the last time you saw some pianist out working a gig in a dining room or lounge reading a piece of sheet music? Never, right! No one has ever walked up to me after a gig and said “Boy Scott, you were just reading up a storm tonight!” Instead I might hear (if rarely…), “Boy Scott, you were playing great tonight.” As silly as that first one sounds, it drives home a great point that should never be forgotten: The objective is to become a good player, not a good reader. I have found lead sheets to be a great way to get the majority of people to a point where they can have fun right away.
Just remember, when it comes to non-classical piano playing… reading piano music does not equal becoming a good piano player. Don’t forget the ultimate goal, which is to become a good recreational player, not a good recreational note reader. Most importantly don’t get the cart before the horse and ever think that sheet music is more than what it is – simply a not-very-exact way to record non-classical music.
Work on becoming a piano player.