Literacy of Music
“When you read you begin with ‘A-B-C’. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi”. The lyrics from The Sound of Music flowed out of my family’s 36 inch TV as I twirled in my overall dress and pink ruffled shirt with a blonde wispy pony tail flopping into my face. Being granted the rare permission of watching a movie in the daytime, I was delighted to re-watch Julie Andrews instructing and loving the Von Trapp family. Something about a young woman finding herself and redeeming the heart of a family through music captivated my attention.
I burst into tears of joy when I saw her in the flowing blue chiffon dress at the party scene leading the children in their goodnight song. My mom attentively ran into the room, with dust rag in hand, inquiring what happened. With tears streaming down my cheeks I stuttered, “I l-love this movie!”.
Today I get to live out my childhood dream on a regular basis. No, I don’t frolic in rolling hills skipping rocks, find toads in my front smock, or nanny seven children. I don’t play Maria in the town theater or get to be Julie Andrews (although I did get to see her live in LA once), but I do get to capture her spirit of teaching children how to understand the language of music. If A-B-C is the fundamental building blocks of learning how to read the English language, then Do-Re-Mi is the fundamental building blocks of learning how to read music, and in my studio I teach that Treble G and Bass C are the fundamental building blocks of reading piano sheet music.
Just as each letter makes a spoken sound, each line or space on the grand staff relates to a key on the piano and makes a musical sound. At first the student must sound out the words by individual letter and recognition of sight-words. In music the student must relay one note to one finger at a time and recognize basic patterns like sames (unisons) or seconds. Within that they must recognize if the notes are moving up or down or repeating. Literacy must start with the basic symbols and sounds and build upon each concept progressively. A student does not pick up a chapter book in kindergarten expecting to understand each symbol and how they create a complex and fascinating story. The student must be encouraged to recognize letters and how they fit together in order to represent a picture. Just like a kindergartner, any musical novice must first learn to recognize and relate symbols to sounds and musical ideas. They must be encouraged to devote the time necessary to throughly understanding the basics before building on each concept to read and interpret more complex musical ideas.
Unfortunately, students are typically instructed in fundamental linguistic rudiments from an early age, but do not receive musical literacy until much later. This in turn creates a desire to skip ahead to more sophisticated sounding music to match the mature ear, but becomes increasingly frustrating as the difficulty exceeds that which they can understand. As The Hobbit in the hands of a five year old would not make sense and quickly loose its appeal, so advanced note reading looses its appeal to the beginning piano student—regardless of age. Practice and patience are necessary for each step of the musical reading process. It must be kept up and strengthened on a regular basis. To enjoy the learning process at each stage is the art of becoming a fluent and native musical linguist.
Taking the necessary time to learn the A-B-C’s, Do-Re-Mi’s, and Treble G and Bass C’s of music allows the most satisfying and rewarding elements of musical literacy. Even though I do not parade children across the Austrian town and countryside, I get to teach the silly songs and fun pieces that drill musical sounds and note names. Each time a students starts tracking music with their eyes on their own and playing beautiful music from a page, my heart twirls with a childish joy. Seeing students of all ages sound out musical symbols and letter names and begin to form musical sentences (phrases) takes me back to the rolling hills where my hearts wants to sing once more.