Musical education, the wasted years

I am sometimes asked: What is the best way to learn to read music? How can I learn to “read flyshit off a wall”? The best tip I can offer is to make sure it’s music that you really want to play. And keep finding more. Don’t let the reading be an end in itself.

My problem was that nearly all the music I wanted to play wasn’t available in sheet music. So I became adept at transcription long before my reading got up to scratch. Ever tried that with a record player (those of you old enough to remember them)? Trying to land the needle in the right groove to check that note you didn’t quite catch?

Going back to my refrain that the map is not the territory, written music is a map which, like a map, can have several functions. At its most basic it serves as a set of instructions, a route-map, while at the opposite end it can serve as a detailed description of the terrain.

I remember my first gig on bass guitar one windy New Year’s Eve in London. My flatmate was a bassist who had a policy of accepting every gig offered so that he could choose the best one for himself and farm out the rest whenever he was double-booked.

Apart from giving him the pick of the gigs the policy had two more benefits. One was that his number became the first number anyone called when they needed a bassist. All the bookers needed was for someone to say yes at the other end of the line. Another was all the gratitude he received from the bassists he offered his surplus gigs to.

The downside was that sometimes he might get really desperate to find a bass player at short notice for a gig he had already accepted. And that is what happened this New Year’s Eve.

As a guitarist who had never played a bass gig I was his last resort.

“Oh by the way,” he said as he handed me his spare bass, a short-scale Musicmaster, and a jack lead, “You might have to do a bit of reading.”

“You know I’ve never read bass clef before” I told him.

“It shouldn’t be too hard. They don’t give you so many notes to play for a start. Just remember this line below the stave is your bottom string, then here’s the A in the bottom space, the D is on the middle line and the G in the top space. Any notes in between are played on the frets. In between.”

His final words of advice, as I waited for the lift, were: “Just remember, the wrong note in the right place is far better than the right note in the wrong place.”

With this method of reading, your fingers try to follow the visual cue without even stopping to think of the names of the notes. Fast reflexes are all you need. It shares some points in common with the way many English kids learn to read music: reflexively, almost by osmosis, from choir parts.

Here in France, kids are not so lucky. Under the French system of solfège, kids spend a year being trained to sight-sing to sol-fa syllables before they are even allowed to handle the instrument they dream of learning to play.

I find this counterproductive. Kids hate it. Many drop out. And frankly, the French do not produce the world’s greatest sight-readers, despite having a system which ruthlessly weeds out the slackers.

And the reason, to my mind is simple. Learning one reflex (that of singing the note to its sol-fa syllable) before switching to playing that note on an instrument is grossly inefficient. Hesitation between the old, half-erased reflex and the new, half-acquired reflex can be a lifelong problem.

Or else you go the long route: see the note – name the note – play the note. For every blessed note!

Going back to that New Year’s Eve. I survived the night, mainly by winging it.


Sorry to hear my neighbour’s 8-year-old daughter just got the axe from her conservatoire. Maybe she will try again once her teachers are in the grave.

Music teachers may add their hate mail in the comments below.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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