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The First Steps To Reading Music

by Eric Ruyle

Over the years of playing and teaching I have often contemplated the process by which musicians learn to read music. Young students seem to learn primarily through a process of trial and error. Gradually they get better at learning new music, but students need the most help at the beginning.

Music involves a number of processes, but if students focus on each aspect separately at first, the process of learning a new piece becomes easy. I have developed a method that breaks the process into simple steps. It focuses primarily on learning notes and rhythms rather than on dynamics, articulations, and phrasing, which are added later.

In the first step students say the names of the notes while using the appropriate fingerings; rhythms should be ignored at first. Before reading, the key signature should be stated, and all accidentals should be noted as they appear. Beginning students often confuse notes such as A5 and C5 because they look alike in written music. This first step helps students to recognize notes and practice fingerings.

Conversely, students focus only on rhythms in the second step of the exercise. In this read-through a player claps the rhythms while counting out loud and tapping their foot. Counting out loud will force a player to subdivide consciously, which in turn will help him to read rhythms accurately. Beginning students should read through the entire piece with this method, while intermediate and advanced students may only need to clap out rhythms in difficult passages.

The third step is to combine clapping and naming notes in rhythm. Students may struggle to name the note in rhythm, but with concentrated effort they learn to focus intensely. There are physical limitations on how many syllables can be spoken in tempo, so key signature are treated as understood. A student reading in the key of G major will not say “F#” each time but only if the rhythm permits. At first it helps to slow the tempo to a point at which note names can be stated clearly.

The final step before playing is to speak and finger the notes in rhythm at a drastically reduced tempo because adding fingerings increases the difficulty tremendously. This last step incorporates each of the previous exercises and prepares the brain to recognize finger, and play the right notes with correct rhythms.

After progressing through the previous step, it is fairly easy to play accurately. A student who struggles at this point may not have covered each step correctly and should review.

Although this method may take some time and effort, it will ultimately save time because students will have learned the music more thoroughly. After learning the notes and rhythms correctly, a player may then concentrate on aspects such as dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. The method may seem difficult and time-consuming at first but becomes easier in time and will be useful for performers at any level.

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