All through music school reading was my least favorite class. We all hated it. Some of my classmates gave up entirely, sat in the back, and shredded on their unplugged electric guitars. I ground my way through that class as a right of passage, but at the time I was far more interested in literally every other topic. After graduating, my reading ability slipped even further, as few of my students really wanted to learn to read seriously. I mean, Hendrix couldn’t read music, so why did it matter so much?
This took some time, but it became really important to me to read not only as a professional in my field, but because I wanted exposure to the immense wealth of material available to those who can read music. Could I live as a poet unable to read the books and poetry of others? How artistically starved would I be? About two years ago I began making it a priority to read a little each day, or as often as time would permit. It was really tough, but not surprising. I made it a game, and I played with making my environment effective. Looking back, I have made some real strides. Don’t get me wrong: I still suck by professional standards, but I think I am better than many guitar teachers who teach for a living. More importantly, I have fallen in love with reading music. Through the very rules of engagement I escape into the moment, I burn ants with the magnifying glass in my mind, and it consumes me. Want in? I’ll tell you all my secrets.
Truthfully, I don’t know of a perfect book for beginners. I learned a lot of the fundamentals in school, and there’s no book available for that. I found some use out of the Hal Leonard series, and you can purchase them individually (linked the compilation here). These books focus on melodies, chords, chart reading, and attempt a holistic approach; however, for melodies alone I find it a bit boring. It’s a good start, though.
My favorite book has been Reading Studies for Guitar by William Leavitt. The content is just unbeatable. Although it’s old and taken from handwritten notation, which makes it a bit difficult to read, many real-world charts are handwritten, so that’s just more training. What I love about this book is how good the melodies are; you can almost hear what comes next, and this helps a lot when dealing with lots of key changes and accidentals.
How I Practice
- Set my timer for 15min. I can do anything for 15min, even if I’m not in the mood.
- If the rhythm looks tough, I will go through and sing the rhythm out loud at a comfortable tempo, and re-visit any unfamiliar spots. I learn a lot about the feel of a piece of music this way. I look for fast spots, slow spots, and get a feel for the musical texture. What’s the lowest note, highest note, how things jump around, or don’t, etc..
- I check the key signature and go over what accidentals I will be adding (in addition to any others in the piece).
- Note mapping: Once I have gotten calibrated to the rhythm and key, I approach the material by keeping a relative beat with my foot and start mapping the notes to my fingers based on the recommended (or noted) neck position. Guitar is a difficult instrument to learn because the same note can be found in many different places, so I take my time and make sure new notes are mapped correctly–no guessing! If the material is beyond my comfort zone, I will slow down for difficult passages and isolate them until I can see the notes on the page in the fretboard of my mind without looking down at my hands. I want to understand what is inside the key and comfortable (known) to me, and what is outside the key and unique to the piece. In other words, I get a sense of the accidentals of the key signature and when and where the piece wants me to alter them. There is often a lot of experimenting during this step, as many parts can be played in different ways across different strings, so carving a navigational approach is super interesting.
- Sightreading: Now I introduce the metronome at a slow click. This step goes hand-in-hand with step #4, and depending on my comfort level and objectives, I might switch these two steps. The accountability of a click actually makes a big difference, because now I am forced to play at the required pace, not the comfortable one. The goal in this stage isn’t perfection, but rather staying on the musical train, getting back on track when I fall off, scanning the upcoming bar while playing the current one, planning for any challenging or unconventional navigational sections, trusting my internalization of the rhythm in relation to the click and my finger choices, and allowing all these related skills to coexist. This stage is the most immersive because it demands all of my focus.
- After the 15min timer rings, I set it up and do another round. I can do anything for 30min if it’s only 15min at a time.
Why I Love Reading
What I didn’t realize way back then, was the framework that music school provided me and my classmates. We worked our asses off because we were in the right environment. It was the thing to do because everyone else was doing it, and it was why we were there. I miss that shared experience, and I miss being in an environment that allows optimal channeling of energies. Creating this type of environment is paramount for success, and working out what the details look like is really enjoyable for me (both in my own life and with my students in their lessons).
What I’ve come to love about reading music the most is the process and the product; basically, reading music is doing a bunch of multitasking that ends up creating the very world I get to hear for the first time, every time. It’s truly amazing. What’s equally cool is that someone else wrote it! All I have to do is read it.
Find me in the real world here.