I learned how to read music in third grade. Violin was the instrument of choice since the public school system wouldn’t let you play the sax until 4th grade. After perfecting ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ and other classic notation mnemonics, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to read bass clef so I could play the piano. Over the next 20 years I played piano concerto’s, sight read as an accompanist, taught several instruments, wrote full scale orchestral pieces, and transcribed complex jazz piano solos. Reading notation hasn’t been a problem since elementary school…until now.
When I was 15, I became infatuated with Béla Fleck and his 5 string banjo stylings. My parents bought me a cheap Asian import banjo and I immediately started digging into bluegrass classics like Cripple Creek, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and more modern Fleck compositions like Sunset Road, and Sinister Minister.
*If you don’t know what I am talking about, you need to get this album immediately…
Learning these pieces was relatively quick and easy thanks to one seemingly wonderful tool. Tablature! Any guitar player, and most other fretted instrument players are familiar with the magical numeric system that simply tells you what finger to place on what string. How do you think so many guitar players know how to play stairway to heaven?
About a year ago I dusted off the ol’ banjo and started to play again. Having given advice about the importance of not relying on tablature to hundreds of students, I knew it was time to practice what I preach. Little did I know, learning to read musical notation on a different instrument involved a complete rewiring of my brain. It is not easy.
Here is my plan of attack…
Learn all chords and inversions – Simply knowing how to play a D chord is not enough. If I am playing a D chord on the 7th fret, I want to think about which notes are ringing on each string. Low D string 7th fret = A, G string 7th fret = D, B string 7th fret = F#, High D string 7th fret = A. This means that this chord is a D 2nd inversion. Learning that the 7th fret on either D string is an A will help greatly when reading notation.
Learn scales – Much like chords, you can start a scale at several different places in the fretboard. You can also find common patterns that help you as you go up and down the neck. Although it can be tough on the ear, you don’t have to start with the root. Learning the 12 major scales up and down the neck can be accomplished with just 3 patterns. Look for these patterns and make note of which notes are on which frets.
Play all the D’s, B’s, C#’s, etc. – There are 8 D’s on a 5 string Banjo. Learn where they all are. You can cross reference the location of these notes with the chords and scales you are working on.
*Banjo notation sounds an octave lower than written
**Shortened 5th String is not represented in this tab
Play lots of songs – Pick easy songs, short songs, songs in keys like G, C, D, or others with limited sharps and flats. If you want to start off with a song in Bb minor, more power to you but you may be fighting an uphill battle. I personally like fiddle tunes, nursery rhymes, and easier classical pieces like selections from Mozart piano sonatas. You can find a ton of notation just by googling. Pick one song per day and find the notes in the lowest position possible. Once you have them down, play along with a metronome. To make things more difficult, start the song on a different string/fret or play it up an octave. It is important to pick a new tune every day or so. Otherwise, you may find yourself subconsciously memorizing tunes instead of really thinking about what notes you are reading. If you spend 30 minutes a day doing this, you will notice a genuine change. To test yourself, go back to a piece you sight read a week or two ago and start over. The difference is amazing.
Why is it important to read music? This is a whole other blog post but in the meantime, ask Stefan Lessard or any of the other Berklee Online student artists how getting back to education has helped their playing.