Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

What Do J.S. Bach and Charlie Parker Have In Common?

Rick Beato has a neat YouTube channel he calls Everything Music. I haven’t had the chance yet to watch more than this one, but it’s a really nice discussion about octave displacement.

In this episode of Everything Music we will explore what Bach and Charlie Parker had in common which was octave displacement. It is a way for you to make your melodies more interesting and more intervallic. It will also give your lines much more interesting shapes.

Virtually Hang Out On Carnegie Hall Stage with Philadelphia Orchestra

This web site is pretty neat. The Google Cultural Institute set up a couple 360 degree cameras up on the stage of Carnegie Hall during a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. You can choose which camera you want to use and also drag around the angle to watch what you want to. Click on the image below to visit.

I ‘ve watched this several times now. I tend to focus mostly on watching the conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I think that conducting is much like performing in that it’s necessary to watch and absorb how great conductors express themselves through their gestures and facial expressions. When you’re performing with an ensemble you have to watch the conductor closely, but my mind is always focused on performing rather than studying the conductor. With a video like this you can simply watch.

There are some other performances you can view too, including the Berlin Philharmonic in a rehearsal.

Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics

I’ve been fascinated by harmonic singing for a long time, ever since I first heard that it was possible for singers to produce more than one pitch at a time. There are different musical traditions that make use of harmonic singing, but to me the most interesting is the traditional music of Tuva. While I’m no expert, my curiosity led me to explore the techniques and taught myself the basics.

Mike Ruiz is a former colleague of mine. In addition to being a fine classical pianist, Mike is a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where I used to teach in the music department. I’ve enjoyed picking his brain in the past about acoustics and recently Mike asked me to assist him with some physics education articles and videos he was producing. He was interested in trombone multiphonics, but in the course of our conversation I mentioned the harmonic singing. The resulting article is called Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics. The abstract can be read here. Here’s the video abstract.

At the same time that I demonstrated the Tuvan throat singing technique for Mike I also demonstrated trombone multiphonics as well, including some techniques that incorporated the throat constriction used for harmonic singing. When I put together trombone multiphonics with harmonic singing I have been able to come up with some interesting sounds that are similar to what you might hear on a didgeridoo. If and when that paper gets published, I will post about it here too.

In the mean time, here’s an older post on trombone multiphonics.

Singing in the MRI

Here’s a neat video I came across by Tyley Ross, a voice teacher and vocologist from New York City. He demonstrates four distinct vocal styles while in an fMRI to show how his vocal tract changes for each style.

I am always excited when musicians and pedagogues investigate the science of how we create musical art. It’s easier to do with voice than with brass instruments, since there’s not external instrument that needs to go into the MRI. Because the voice is also an area that medical science specifically studies also, we happen to know more about how sound is produced when singing.

I was somewhat surprised by how open the soft palate was open on the operatic style compared to the rock style. It’s pretty cool to be able to look inside the body and see what’s going on.

The Greatest Baroque Composer You’ve Never Heard Of

What do you think of the Missa Salisurgensis (Salzburg Mass)? I had never heard of this piece before coming across The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known.

As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Read further through the article to learn more about this piece and how musicologists have tried to piece together who the composer of this piece of music really was.

Instrumental Technique – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Here is an interesting essay by Steven Thompson, writing for NPR. He was asked by a listener about bands and musicians that feature a virtuoso performer, noting that some musicians are known for exceptional technique, but uninteresting music. Thompson replies:

Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.

I think what you’re getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they’re not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that’s a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn’t necessary to form “a sound defense,” though you’re likely to hear “technical ability” paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn’t simple.

Although the examples Thompson discusses are rock musicians, there are similar things that have been said of jazz and classical musicians as well. For example, many jazz fans dislike Maynard Ferguson’s music because they find his high note trumpet playing to be overwhelming. Talk with some orchestral fans and you will hear them compare one orchestra as being “technically superior, but musically lacking.”

It’s an interesting discussion. At what point does instrumental technique become musically unsatisfying? I think everyone would probably agree that up to a certain point, instrumental technique is necessary for a quality musical performance, however there is a certain point where it may become more like juggling (look at how well I can play my instrument) rather than an expressive performance. Perhaps there is a sort of a “bell curve” of instrumental facility where at some point showing off technique ceases to be musical. Or, more likely, the amazement we get from hearing a virtuoso musician perform diminishes quickly so that the player’s chops become less interesting to us, leaving us feeling unsatisfied if there isn’t expressive musicianship also.

Frankly, I think it’s not so much the instrumental technique that is the issue, but rather the lack of musicality in certain virtuoso players. When a musician’s technique is in service of the expression I personally forget about the virtuosic technique and find myself more focused on the spirit and mood of the music. When the playing is done more to show off (higher, faster, louder), then it just comes across as immature, to me. Thompson concludes similarly.

Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it’s rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.

Playing On or Behind the Conductor’s Beat

When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.

In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.

This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.

Then there’s the concerns with distance.

Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound.  Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion.  This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.

If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.

The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.

I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.

James Bennette II, writing for wqrx.org, notes another excuse,

“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).

So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.

Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.

Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.

Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.

Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.

In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.

This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.

Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.

What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.

3D Tongue Motion Analysis of Wind Musicians

I’ve been meaning to post about these videos for a while. Matthias Bertsch, who has conducted a lot of research into how musicians perform on their instruments, has posted a couple of videos on YouTube that look at the tongue motion of different musicians. He attached sensors to the tongue and was able to model how the tongue moves when performing different things on trumpet and clarinet.

Just last week I posted about Doug Yeo’s experience playing trombone while inside an fMRI scanner. Bertsch’s trumpet video above showed some of the clips from much older research looking at the tongue motion of brass players using fluoroscopic techniques, which unfortunately exposes the test subjects to radiation and really isn’t an ethical use of that technology knowing what we do now about the dangers of such exposure. The motion sensor analysis and fMRI studies are significant improvements and hopefully as the technology gets better (and cheaper and easier to use) we will see more research conducted into how brass and woodwind players play their instruments. Taking the guess work out of what correct technique is and what a student is actually doing has the potential to significantly improve how we teach music in the future.

Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of interesting gigs this weekend for folks around western North Carolina. Tomorrow, Saturday September 2, 2017, I’m performing with the Blue Ridge Bones at the Hendersonville, NC Apple Festival. We’re playing at the courthouse stage from 3:30-4:30.

Sunday, September 3, 2017 I’m playing with Rick Dilling’s Time Check Big Band in a tribute to Buddy Rich concert at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall. We’ll be playing two sets starting at 7:30.

In the mean time, here are some interesting music related links for your weekend surfing.

In Bb is an interactive project using YouTube videos in the key of Bb. Try it out.

Here’s an fMRI video of someone singing “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Have you ever wondered what Ravel’s “Bolero” would sound like played by 4 musicians on a single cello?