the importance of reading

Over the years I have gone from representing the highest possible grade of resistance to reading music to a staunch advocate.

Take for example a student of mine who we'll call Ben. Through hard work (and expert instruction, of course) Ben auditoned for, and got the lead guitar slot in his school's jazz band. I was fairly sure he would get the gig, as Ben is a very good young guitar player. Among the tools at his disposal are great hands, a solid ear, good time, and an amazing memory. There's only one thing, and that is that Ben hated reading music.

Every week was pretty much the same. As with all of my students, the first thing they do is tune by ear. Next comes the
Finger Exercise, after which I'll call out a few random scales. Next comes the reading, followed by a healthy amount of time working on “fun stuff”. My intermediate to advanced students pretty much get to call the shots as far as what they want to work on during this period, which tends to get longer and longer over the course of time as the rudiments work their way into the DNA. During the time allotted to “fun stuff”, Ben usually wants to work on a great classic rock guitar solo. He really looks forward to this portion of the lesson, as do I. Unfortunately he had to get through the reading in order to get there. He would try to distract me by making conversation or asking creative questions, as he knows that I can go off for hours when a subject catches my fancy. Sometimes when he was feeling really desperate he would try and hide his book under some other papers on the table. That never worked either.

Things went on like this for a long time, and he continued to excel in nearly everything except reading which remained passable, but far below stellar. Then came Ben's first day in jazz band, where he and the rest of the band were handed a piece of music to sight-read. The pianist, trombone players, and saxophonists were all on top of it, and Ben was not. He got his guitar playin' butt handed to him by the brass section.

We have our lesson the same night as his rehearsal, and on that particular evening he was a bit stressed. He gave me a copy of the piece and I have to say that I was surprised (and delighted) by how challenging it was. We worked through it a few bars at a time, and after awhile something wonderful happened. The piece started to repeat itself. The agonizing monotony of slugging through two beats at a time turned into something else, that something being fun. The tune's mysteries were revealed, and soon he was actually "playing" it, instead of "practicing" it. The dragon slain, we moved on to "Long Time" by Boston and all was well.

It reminds me of a joke I heard a long time ago. How do you get a guitarist to stop noodling at rehearsal? The answer of course is to put some sheet music in front of him. There is a reason why so many guitarist suffer from illiteracy. It is indeed much harder to read music on the guitar than most instruments. Most of the notes on the neck can be played in three or four different places. Yes, this is true for any stringed instrument, but you don't see a lot of five or six note chords being played on a cello. The guitar's versatatility is simply unmatched in that it can function brilliantly as an accompaniment instrument and a lead instrument. I play the piano, and I love it, but you can't bend notes on a piano. Likewise, you can't play a C chord on a saxophone. All of these things add up to the fact that it is a bear to become a solid reader on the guitar.

Another reason is the existence of tablature. Tablature removes the guesswork and confusion of figuring out which position a passage should be played in, because it tells you what position to play it in. Tab is very easy to figure out, and a lot of fun to work with. The problem with tab is that it is completely useless unless you already know what the song you're trying to play sounds like. It doesn't normally provide dynamics, or even rhythm. My biggest beef with tab is that guitarists who rely upon it too heavily end up only being able to communicate with other guitarists. This is what happened to poor Ben in jazz band that day. He was put into a room with a bunch of musician's that were taught almost exclusively through written music. On the guitar we learn from all of these charts and chord diagrams while everybody else is reading music. This places us at a disadvantage when we're placed in these situations.

To be clear, I love tab for some things, and I certainly don't want to do away with chord diagrams. The guitar is very "shape-oriented" and it's very important to develop that visual relationship with it. What I want is for guitarists to empower themselves, and not accept the huge limitations that not being a good reader inflict. What I recommend is that you get a reading buddy. Lately I've been playing Bach Inventions as guitar duets with my students, and they love it. By love it I mean at first they hate it, until they reach the point I described above where the patterns start to become apparent, and they start to hear the tune. At that point they are experiencing what too many guitarists never do. Music is a language, and I believe strongly that any musician should be able to write, read, and speak (play) music. If any of these is missing from the equation, the artist is cheating him or herself out of access to an entire dimension of music.

Ben's doing great, in case you were wondering. From what I understand he's becoming one of the better readers in the class. Good on ya, Ben.