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.

Business Advice For Freelancers

Erin A. Paul is a freelance horn player and she has some advice for freelance musicians. If you’re a student musician hoping to perform professionally, or even an experienced freelance musicians, it’s worth a look.

Freelancing has a lot to do with who you know, and what they think of working with you. The most important lesson my teacher Dan Grabois drilled in was to “be a good colleague.” Not only will your working life be more enjoyable, but it will help you get asked back to the gig. Once you’ve reached a certain level on your instrument, it becomes less about your playing, and more about what it’s like to work with you!

She makes a point that is similar to things I’ve mentioned before. When I’m booking musicians for my band, I don’t contact the best musicians first, I get in touch with the competent musicians who are reliable and easy to work with. When those players are both outstanding musicians and also good colleagues, that’s a bonus.

I think that Paul forgets a few key things, such as arriving early (early=on time) and helping with stage setup/tear down (or at the very least keeping out of the way). But she also listed a few things that I forgot or didn’t think of.

Don’t wear strong perfume or cologne, especially not in a pit.

And it should go without saying, but there are a couple of musicians that I work with somewhat frequently that should, er, maybe take more frequent showers and try out some deodorant. One of my “gigs from hell” stories from way back involved traveling a long distance to play for free and then having to sit next to a musician who’s body odor was overpowering.

Here’s another piece of advice from Paul that I didn’t think of earlier.

Don’t forget the gas money.

Always offer gas/toll money, even if you don’t have cash on you. Car ownership is not cheap, especially in NYC. If it weren’t for that person owning, maintaining, registering, and driving the car, you probably couldn’t have gotten to the gig! If you want to be really nice, text the driver before pickup and ask what kind of coffee/tea they like.

It’s great to car pool with other musicians to gigs when you have a long drive time ahead of you. You save on gas money and hopefully the company you have along the trip makes the travel go easier. It’s very nice to have someone around to help keep the driver awake on those gigs when you’re traveling home late at night. But it sometimes amazes me how often people forget to chip in a few bucks at the end of the night. Sure, if you didn’t ride along with me I was going to have to drive there anyway so it’s really not a huge deal, but at least offer something.

It unfortunately seems that Paul’s blog hasn’t been updated in over a couple of years. Many of her posts would primarily be of interest to horn players, but others are good for any musician. You can check out more articles by Erin Paul here.