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Sight-Reading: Why Bother With It?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Feature by  Michelle Nelson

In late 2015, the online journal The Conversation published a thought-provoking article Musical Literacy: a skill of some note(s) by Australian music academic Dr Peter Tregear (currently Teaching Fellow, Royal Holloway University of London).

The author discusses music notation and its dwindling role in the transmission of contemporary music in the digital world, together with the Pop-culture perception that reading music is no longer necessary. Of particular interest for music teachers, he also raises the question of whether reading is essential to gaining a music qualification.

The sad news is that it's not: there are already tertiary courses in the world that do not promote music reading beyond a basic level. Having run a guitar-teaching studio (since 1991), I know well that the majority of guitarists who graduate from jazz-based courses offered through our TAFE system, even some from lauded institutions like the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), can not read music well enough to do an on-the-spot reading test. Certainly not well enough to be able to teach 'music' (as opposed to teaching noodling on an instrument).

Years ago now, I stopped embarrassing potential guitar teachers with a sight-reading test at the interview. Not that I was giving applicants anything really difficult: Grade 3-4 standard single-note melodies. One couldn't even read a simple triplet figure – after three years of a jazz-based music 'degree'. That's what I call poor.

A guitarist colleague, an excellent reader who plays in theatre shows throughout the year, has described to me several times now that the common complaint amongst conductors is they can't find young guitarists who read well enough, or at all. He has at times been handed music that someone else failed at, littered with scrawled chord-box diagrams, string numbers, letter names and so on.

The thought that reading music is seen by some now as optional is a gloomy one for literate musicians, but the reality is tech-savvy young people all around the world are struggling to see why they ought to spend years honing a skill that digital technology appears to have made redundant.

The rapid 21st-century development of user-friendly digital music programs has enabled the Pop scene to be taken over by a breed of 'performers' ('artists') who cannot even play an instrument! The artist known as Flume, after the ceremony at which he won the 'APRA Artist of the Year' award in 2014, cheerily told reporters it was "amazing" he should win such an award as "I can't even sing". (He won the award based on his digital productions in which he manipulates prerecorded material into new songs. Yes, that is a kind of composition, but how musical is it?)

A new iPhone app called Beatwave (reviewed in The Green Guide in The Age, 11/2/16) gives the user the ability to create four-track recordings by just selecting options. Notes are selected by tapping on a grid. No music training is needed to 'produce' an item of digital music on such a program. There will be no shortage of 'Flumes' in coming years.

The case against reading music goes something like this: Modern music is mostly performed by memory and tends to involve significant sections of improvised or freely-interpreted playing. Famous musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney 'couldn't' read music and yet had stellar careers. Many modern musicians need to be (and are) computer literate far more than in the old sense of literacy. And, in the new digital world many musicians no longer work in the way that was once commonplace; thus, having to read music on the job (in Pop especially) is now relatively rare.

(McCartney, it should be noted here, played in his father's marching brass band as a youngster. And he didn't read music? Really?)

The case for reading music is that it provides the ability to connect with a vast library of material, from bygone eras to the present. It is the way into deeper study of the subject in broad terms and is the key to engaging with high-value literature.

As a literate musician, I know I could not possibly have developed my craft to my current level without being able to read and analyse written music. And I know I cannot further develop my composition aspirations without music writing. I read music every day, as easily and naturally as I read language.

I feel sorry for those who think they can avoid music literacy and yet, somehow, develop a deep understanding of the subject. Allowing yourself to remain wholly or partly ignorant of significant areas of a subject that you profess to love is confounding. And in a world brimming with education possibilities it is simply indefensible: a matter of ignorance, not limited opportunity.

For examining bodies, the question we need to consider is: Why continue to insist on sight-reading as a non-negotiable component of practical music exams (especially for contemporary instruments)? Should we bend to new realities or insist on a traditional approach? I have spent years observing contemporary guitar students bumble nervously through the sight-reading test at their exam. Even many good students are clearly worried by this part of assessments.

Whilst I feel sure it should remain a part of low-grade tests (say, to Grade Five), testing note-reading ability for high-grade students does not have much of a bearing on their technical ability. I have seen enough Grade 6-8 level students who have performed their pieces quite well but who then look barely able to play on a sight-reading test. What does that prove? Only that their sight-reading capability doesn't match their technical abilities.

In his article, Tregear says,

At the tertiary level, I suspect this emerging lack of confidence is music notation can also be traced to a broader, Utopian urge to rid the world of old-fashioned hegemonic norms and institutional values.

If he is right, then it is a great pity; on a personal level, we all need the ability to access deeper knowledge. To devalue music reading as a skill no longer essential in the digital world is to debase the whole subject. If tertiary music education systems are turning away from traditional music literacy, our cherished subject is surely in trouble.

Some commentators will say this is yet another facet of 'the great disruption' – the tumult brought upon us by rapid digitisation. I suspect the word 'disruption' is not quite accurate; 'destruction' feels more like it.

And whilst some may think reading music is 'uncool', or that it represents old-fashioned institutional approaches, I propose it is music illiteracy that is really uncool. How on earth could there be anything cool, hip, desirable or admirable about being illiterate?

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in Guest Feature articles are those of the respective author/s and do not necessarily represent ANZCA policy.