Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Musical Mental Block

Trouble learning to read music

It shouldn't be that hard. I've known my alphabet for many, many years, and the staff is only ten notes high (though you can have notes below or above the staff, of course, but on the regular guitar you're not going to go much lower than low E (in fact, I'm not sure it's possible to go lower than low E except on a bass guitar. Wouldn't all the notes be higher than that as you made the strings shorter by pressing them? I think so.) and that's only another six notes below the staff, for a total of sixteen notes. I ought to be able to learn sixteen notes, right?


Oh, I can play them just fine. I just can't see them on the staff without having to stop and think about them every single time. Is that a B or a C? Is that an E or an F? A or G? Ugh!

These are our final "beginner" lessons. We've been playing for fifteen months now, and we're preparing to move on to "intermediate" level material. I really need to get this down. Repetition ought to do it, but it's just not.

So I made flash cards! You can even see them here. They're sort of working - I'm a bit quicker than I was, but I still feel myself thinking too hard when I should be just blowing through the music. I can definitely play a lot faster than I can read.

It's neat, though, to be able to play the actual music, rather than just chords. My son, for instance, got a birthday card from our guitar teacher that folded out to a guitar and played "happy birthday." If you play chords for "happy birthday" it's a nice enough accompaniment to your singing, but it doesn't really sound all that much like "happy birthday." If you play it note-by-note, however, it's instantly recognizable.We're currently working on The Star-Spangled Banner, having already played (though by no means mastered) Greensleeves, Farewell Spanish Ladies and a handful of others. We've learned the C (natural) scale and the G scale (with its F# notes) and it's all really cool. I was in chorus for six or seven years, and I never really got the hang of reading music, except to be able to tell that I should "sing higher" or "sing lower." To actually understand musical notation seems like learning a foreign language - one that, for once - I might actually be able to master.

It's going to take some more time, I'm afraid, before I'm reading music like a native speaker. Meanwhile, I'm still really liking the instrument. As much as it drives me crazy with my fat fingers that can't hit only a single string when I need to and my frequent screw-ups even when I'm playing something I ought to have down perfectly, I still really enjoy what I'm learning.

My daughter, on the other hand, not only plays the piano and trumpet quite well, but she recently picked up my Irish tin whistle and within about twenty minutes was playing Amazing Grace from the booklet and various Renaissance Faire tunes by ear. Clearly, musical talent skipped a generation in my family.

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