|Painting by Gustav Adolph Hennig,|
image at Wikimedia
I have to say that motherhood continually brings me new insights into some of the more everyday aspects of life. I never realized how much effort goes into going to the bathroom in the bathroom, for instance. Or how much coordination, balance, and taste it takes to dress oneself in the morning. Watching my daughter go through all of these learning processes has both frustrated and amazed me and when I look back on it all, it makes me marvel at our capacity for learning and adapting.
The last biggie in our household has been watching our daughter learn how to read on her own. I am an avid reader and have been for as long as I can remember so I have been very intent on soaking in the whole process. And since I also happen to be a bit passionate about folks learning how to sightread music I've come up with a list of similarities between the worlds of music and words in print form that I've observed lately. Why bother, you might ask? Because I feel very strongly that too many people treat the act of reading music as something completely different from the act of reading words on a page. Hand someone a book and ask them to read a bit of it to you and very rarely will he or she respond negatively. But ask someone to sightread a piece of music? Yikes! For many that is a complete nightmare and is enough to send them back to the days when he or she was just learning to read in school and was asked to read in front of the entire class.
So here are some of my casual observations.
- As a fluent reader, I read and recognize whole words and sometimes even strings of words. I definitely do not read letter by letter. Lately, as I've been reading to my daughter, I've tried reading the other way and it simply does not work. My brain cannot make sense of a storyline, I can't predict what's going to happen next, I cannot decide what voice to use in dialogues because I am literally living letter by letter. The same is true with music, especially piano music that requires one to read both horizontally and vertically at the same time. When I read music, I am taking in and processing groups of notes all at once. A series of ascending notes? An ascending scale, not C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. A group of tightly-knit fast notes? An ornamentation all around one note, not E-F-E-D-E-F-G-F-E. I make a game of trying to find patterns in everything I'm reading in order to simplify the process of reading music, whether it's the first time I've ever seen it or the 100th time. If I don't, I no longer am making music, I'm simply playing notes. I-T-W-O-U-L-D-B-E-L-I-K-E-T-H-I-S-S-E-N-T-E-N-C-E-!
- Sitting side-by-side with my daughter as she's trying to read books on her own has been a very interesting experience for me. Not too long ago we were sitting on the couch with her eagerly reading to me. She was reading along and not surprisingly, she read a word that wasn't actually on the page. Trying to be a good "teacher" I interrupted her flow of words and proceeded to "correct" her. Wow. Her reaction was eye-opening. Her face crumpled, her eyes went blank, and painfully for me, the book closed. Trying to explain myself I said, "What? You read it incorrectly. I was just correcting you." Even before I finished saying that last sentence, I felt myself crumpling inside. What I realized afterwards is that my dear daughter was already skimming. She was already learning to read, not letter by letter, but by recognizing and guessing what was coming next. And is this a bad thing? What do I do when I sightread music? Do I stop when I misread something (if I'm even aware that I'm misreading it)? Do I correct myself? No, I don't because playing every note perfectly is not why I sightread music. So the moral of this little episode with my daughter is that from now on I want to stop before I correct. Perhaps there will be times when it's important for me to point out something she missed but I'd rather take a risk and let her learn the art of sightreading herself.
- Sightreading words and music in a more macroscopic way enables me to learn an author's or composer's language more quickly which then makes reading easier and easier. In general, once I see patterns and trends in their language I can then predict more of what is going to happen in the next phrase, the next sentence, the next measure. If I'm reading letter by letter, note by note, getting into the head of the creator is virtually impossible - I have to continue to read in a microscopic way. But reading in patterns, I can guess that in Beethoven, I'm going to get lots of repeated motives; in Debussy I'm going to get lots of whole tone scales; in Mendelssohn I'm going to get lots of arpeggiated figurations that fit comfortably in my hand; in Bartok there's a lot of mirror-image playing. Knowing all this makes reading music so much easier just as it's gotten easier for my daughter to pick up a fairy tale and give it a go simply because she knows that it's going to start with "Once upon a time" and end with "they lived happily ever after."
- Once I have an idea of an author's or composer's language, I can then appreciate his or her touches of genius when they occur because more often than not, these magical spots are that way because they defy my expectations. When I'm sightreading either books or music, I am constantly predicting what I think is going to happen next. With some of the lesser-known composers, composers that didn't necessarily rock their world and turn them upside down, what I predict usually comes true. But with others, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Schubert, for example, it's those times when they completely pull the rug out from under me that makes me realize what makes a piece of music so incredibly effective and which spots have the potential to make the audience sit on the edge of their seats with their jaws hanging down in between their knees. Those spots are what makes good music, good music. Same is true with reading books to my daughter. The more predictable stories, well, they're not nearly as fun to tell. There aren't as many spots that I look forward to reading. But with the good ones? Those are the ones where I know that if I just drop my voice to a whisper, add a little dramatic silence before the final sentence of a chapter, I'll have my daughter begging for more. And it's those parts in the story that I would never have thought of writing in that way myself. It's what makes good stories, good stories.
So in conclusion, here's what I have to say.
Reading, whether it be words on a page or music, has the potential to rock anyone's world but only if we see the marks on the page for what they are. Not individual scratches, but words, sentences...language! I'm not one for absolute perfection, especially when it comes to enjoying literature or enjoying music - I don't think perfection in reproduction is the point. The point lies behind the ink, beyond the notes and if we want young people to enjoy reading and to enjoy just sightreading music for fun, I think it's important that we think carefully about how we teach these precious skills.
Happy reading, everyone! And I encourage you all to share with me your own experiences of reading both music and words. I'm putting a lot of thought into the art of sightreading and would appreciate any feedback or thoughts.