“Wish I was better and faster at reading the piano melody from a Lead Sheet” – Q&A with The Piano Guy

In this post I wanted to share my response to a question that is a fairly common “variation on a theme” that I am often asked about. I’m hoping a lot of you will find it helpful, and possibly re-assuring 🙂

Q: Hi Scott, I memorized the names of the notes on the Treble Clef. My trouble is remembering them when I see them on the music sheet. I find myself often having to stop and figure them out by using “Every Good Boy Does Fine, All Cows Eat Grass,” etc. to be able to figure out which note I’m looking at. What practice exercise can I do to be a proficient reader of these notes?”

A: In sort of a backward way, I am kind of glad that your issue is the note reading at this point. Why? Because it will be one of the easiest things for you to conquer in a short amount of time.

My best suggestion is to simply work on nothing BUT single note (meaning only playing one note at a time, no chords in RH) melody lines in your RH. Totally forget your LH and any chords for a few days.

The important thing is to slowly work through some melodies THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW IN YOUR HEAD. i.e. you could sing them or hum them from memory. That’s super important at the stage you are so you can kind of “self-monitor” whether you are playing the right notes or not by ear.

Behind the scenes mentally there is a lot going on right at this stage in your learning. The big thing getting processed in your noggin is multiple “aha” moments where your brain is connecting the dots (pun intended) between what it knows a melody SOUNDS like already, to what it LOOKS like in music notation. That starts this mental ability to start intuitively being able to “see” the general ups and downs of the flow of a melody line based on what you are hearing, or already know a melody should sound like. That gets you away from the EGBDF and FACE mental gymnastics note after note that you are currently facing.

The end game is that once you get over this initial hump, you’ll quit reading individual notes, but instead read their relationship (i.e. intervals between) to each other. I know it sounds like voodoo, but an analogy is needing to learn to read individual letters before you can put them together in words, and then the words individually before you can string them into sentences. I am sure as you read this response, you are not stopping to “decode” every single letter of every word. Instead your brain is processing “chunks” of things together like words and sentences.

A huge issue to note though, is the fact that whenever you first learned to read, you didn’t need to get all that “letter, then words, then sentence” sequence figured out before you could start speaking to someone. Your brain figured out the whole talking/communicating thing with no need for knowledge of letters. The reading/writing stuff just gave you the ability to record (write down) what you could say, or “un”-record (read) what someone else had already said and saved by writing sentences down.

Similarly in music, black dots and lines all over a page (i.e. music notation) is not music. It is just a recording of some music. The actual music is what you hear or play, not what is written down. Your brain has (since you were born!) been understanding and memorizing music, and allowing you to communicate through music every time you’ve ever hummed a tune, or smiled when some familiar tune comes on the radio. You’re now simply asking your brain to connect what it already intuitively knows to some crude set of written “code” that we call music notation.

I just bring that up to make sure that you never get the cart before the horse and lose focus on the importance (or in this case as you are just getting started in this style, lack of importance) of learning to become a good note reader. You don’t… You simply need a basic ability to read a melody line so that you may learn some tune you have never heard before and want to learn to play. If you already know the melody to some tune you are wanting to play go ahead and “hunt and peck” it out if you want. I’ll never tell. 🙂

Getting it learned is the goal and reading the notation is just a tool to allow you to do that more quickly. The whole idea is to NOT need to read something as quickly as possible so you can focus on really “making” music (fun!) as opposed to just regurgitating something you are reading verbatim from a piece of sheet music (not so fun).

So in summary, take a few days and find some tunes in the Gig Book that you already recognize and remember and could hum or sing the melody line to. Then (forgetting everything else) try to play and read your way through the melody line consciously letting your ears tell you whether you are playing the right notes or not. Once your brain starts connecting what it is hearing (something known) with what it is seeing (something not), the note reading will quickly become easier and easier.

Happy playing!
Scott Houston

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