My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading words, reading music...observations from a musical mom

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.  

Many thanks!


  1. Brandy Buckles BaxterJuly 17, 2011 at 6:22 PM

    When I sightread I see the shape of the notes and chords. Like you, I do not read each individual note. The majority of what I play while sightreading is based on instinct rather than conscious thought, even though I am counting internally or externally most of the time. I feel like I'm "in the zone" and have rarely been able to play a piece the second time as well as I play it the first time. My thoughts always get in the way!

    My best analogy is when someone you haven't spoken to in years appears out of nowhere and their name instantly comes to your lips as soon as you see them. You don't think about it, you just say it :)

    I credit years of choral and church accompanying with my sightreading skills. Being the only willing pianist during all of middle and high school kept me constantly exposed to accompanying soloists and groups. Those experiences and accompanying for church forced me to learn how to keep going when I played and allowed me to cultivate some degree of intuition about what may be coming up next in a piece. Because of my musical history, I find that I tend to sightread better when playing with other musicians because I do not have the luxury of extensive thought or stopping before the end of the piece.

  2. Great post! It reminded me of an article I posted a while back on the connection between sight reading and reading out loud, at

    I love the connections you are finding between reading and music!

  3. Brandy,
    Thank you so much for sharing your own insights and experiences. I can relate to everything you mentioned! I especially resonate with the whole "playing in the zone" sensation - it is bizarre, isn't it? I sometimes find myself mystified in the midst of sightreading, especially when it's going well. And that in itself is baffling. How can I be thinking about something like that while I'm sightreading?


    And I also share the experience all the time of being able to read something well only that first time. Yet another bizarre thing.

    Thanks again for reading, Brandy, and for taking the time to comment. Happy reading :-)


  4. Outstanding post, Erica! Thanks for sharing and reminding us that when kids are learning to read music, they shouldn't be taught as if they are learning for the sake of passing a theory competency test; they're learning so that someday they can experience, interpret, and maybe even create with this written musical language in meaningful ways. We would all do well to remember this. Brava!

  5. Geraldine,
    Thank you for reading. I hope you don't think I'm swiping ideas from your own wonderful blog - I'm not! I think we just happen to think alike much of the time. Anyway, thank you for sharing your own blog post. It's amazing to me how many experiences we have growing up carry over to even our professional lives.

    All the best to you and thank you again,

  6. Travis,
    Thank you for your comment and for mentioning the post on twitter. As you know I'm all for helping folks find meaning in music and I know you are as well!

    Keep up the wonderful posts, tweets, and conversations - I love them!


  7. Wonderful blog as usual, dear Erica! I must say my experience is completely different: I never met anyone who will refuse sightread, though I met quite a lot who refused to read. I was not bothered about this subject but first I noticed when I worked with the boy helping him improve his English in the school. His mother said to me her son is dyslexic. I never heard about such problem before so I asked what is dyslexia. She said, we people who can read, we always recognize the meening of the word, like HOUSE even if it´s written HUSEO beacuse we don´t read a letter by letter. A dislexic has not this ability, because there is a gene defect in the brain that unables this process. But the boy started to play piano and soon I noticed his dislexia is not coming up with music scores sightread. So, I thought at that time, this might be connected with the primary hearing while music sightreading because that´s always we switch on first before we begin sightread as with story sightreading-we don´t actually primary switch on our hearing in this case. I understood for reading is hearing very important. From that moment on, I understood while the Russian Pianistic School (and not only Pianistic) insists to teach the child at the beginning of its musical education to play without any score, without any knowledge of music letter, because the concentration is on the pitch, on your ear. And I noticed in my case: when I am longer in UK, like 2 or 3 weeks, I don´t have problems in recognizing wether "beginning" is to be written with 2 n or not, because you can hear the difference in the spoken language.
    I hope this was useful a bit....

    Lots of love and keep writing!


  8. Oh Sanja,
    Yes, your personal observations from your own experiences are definitely very interesting to me and useful - thank you! I had never considered that difference between reading music and reading stories - that prior to reading music, we tend to turn on our ears in order to be able to use them in addition to using our eyes. My experience here in the US is that the majority of kids are not taught music by ear, with the exception of Suzuki kids, and when they go to sightread music, they are generally not expecting to really listen - they rely instead on their sight. And perhaps when one learns to play music first by ear, one learns better how notes tend to be grouped together so the brain and the ear can guess what is coming next - one doesn't need to concentrate on every single note.'ve got me thinking again. So very interesting! Thank you :-)

    And yes, I do believe I'll keep writing, lol!

    All the best,

  9. Thank you, Erica! Great post! I love the correlation between reading books and music. Often, if one of my new students gets frustrated with himself and thinking they are never going to "get this", I ask them to read the title of the song out loud to me. They read it right away. I say, "How do you know it says that?" and they say, "Well, I just do." I say, "Did you sound it out?" And they say, "No.". Then I go on to explain that that is the way it is with music -- that it is another language, and just as they learned how to read -- slowly, and sounding things out -- they also learn music the same way -- slowing and "sounding things out", but in their fingers. A light goes on, and they take the pressure off of themselves.

    Love your blog!

    God bless,

    TK Goforth

  10. TK,
    So great to hear from you :-) I love your title-reading method to help your students connect with how they read words vs. how the sometimes read notes. So fantastic and simple! It's amazing to me how often students don't even know what the title is of the piece they're playing so you're solving two problems at one time with that little exercise. Brilliant!

    Thank you for reading and sharing!


  11. Erica-
    Your thought processes are so heartfelt and bound up with such reality, as to make the reading of them really a cherished and vivid experience. What you offer are universal truths particularized, and this makes it easy for us to absorb the message while enjoying the ride. I believe your gift for writing is very great, and I am glad to have come upon your site.
    Thank you.

  12. Dear Wayne,
    You are so kind and encouraging! I'm so glad the personal side of my writing makes connecting to my experiences a bit easier. I see music-making as being just another facet of life, not some extraordinary feat of a select group of talented people. My hope is that young musicians and musicians that don't feel like they can be professionals, would gain courage through reading about some of my experiences. Music making is about so much more than a high level of perfection, it's about connecting and sharing of oneself and the composer.

    But why am I telling you this? You are one of my mentors in this field :-)

    All the best to you, Wayne. Thank you for taking the time to comment.