In my first year of college at Wayne State University, I noticed a comic strip in my guitar instructor’s office. The drawing was of a conductor holding his baton in a room of flames, surrounded by a pitiful-looking bunch of guitarists and banjo players. The caption read, “Conductors Hell.” After mentioning this to friends for a quick laugh as the image of that comic resurfaced in my mind from time to time, I was surprised to find how many people did not understand the joke. Guitarists tend to be labeled as incompetent when it comes to reading music, and a depiction of that reality in a comic is, well, hilarious, but it is also a sad fact that holds true for the majority of aspiring young guitarists and semi-professionals.
I have been teaching guitar lessons for about eight years now, and I can say, with certainty, that the majority of guitarists do not understand the value in being able to sight-read music. Guitarists can sit at home while they search the web for guitar lessons, find free tablature of their favorite songs, and listen to many recordings for free on the web. Learning music seems like such an easy task when all of this is at one’s fingertips, but a crucial element of musicianship is lacking from this guitarist – the ability to read music.
Before I continue, I am compelled to state my reservations about learning how to play the guitar in front of a computer. While there are many useful and legitimately helpful resources that can be accessed for free, there is no substitute for the guidance that one can receive from a private instructor who is an educated professional and sincerely passionate about helping a student reach their potential. So much bad information litters the internet that a musician who really wants to take their playing to the next level spends more time weeding through the garbage for the information that they really need than actually practicing. Unfortunately, too many guitarists do not truly know the quality of instruction that they are getting “for free” on the web because they have little to compare it to, and any Joe Schmo can post their “shortcuts to becoming the world’s next guitar virtuoso” without having any noteworthy credentials. Please, if this is your approach to learning music, STOP, and find an instructor that you can trust! So then, what should you look for in an instructor? First, ask yourself these questions: What kind of real experience in performance does this instructor have, what sort of music education have they completed, and what kind of success have the instructor’s students had in music? Without the perspective gained from professional performance, a teacher’s instruction is narrow and not worth your time and money. It is true that there are some fantastic guitarists who never had formal music education, but studying with someone that has overcome the challenges of a reputable educational institution is reassuring because college students are required to demonstrate skills necessary to compete as professionals in the music industry. Also, if you ask an instructor what their students have accomplished, it may be an indicator of how they can help you reach your personal goals, or discover new avenues that you may have been unaware of as possibilities.
Now, back to reading music! After you have found an instructor that you can trust, I encourage you to explore reading music with their guidance because it will help you develop in ways that you never thought possible. A competent instructor not only teaches notes and rhythms, but also uses sight-reading as a tool for a student to begin understanding their instrument on a new level. Learning to sight-read is a different adventure for everyone. For some it is a lot of fun, and for others, it is like pulling teeth, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Since there is only so much time in private lessons, and the guitar is a complex instrument, I have found that the best way for guitarists to learn how to read is to join a guitar ensemble in addition to receiving the help from an instructor. The idea of playing in an ensemble is nothing new…that’s why schools all across the world have band programs. The downside is that most do not offer guitarists a spot in bands and orchestras because the teachers do not know how to effectively help guitarists. At GPMA, I teach guitarists in the Guitar Ensemble from the perspective of a guitarist (unlike most public and private schools), and I also arrange music so that it is catered to the skill level of every student in the group. Each ensemble will play pieces written specifically for them, and have at least one or two scheduled performances each year that they can be proud of. The two things that I tell my students is that they should learn to read music because one, it simply makes them a better guitarist, and two, it will allow them to make money! One of the biggest differences between semi-professionals and professional guitarists is the pro’s ability to read. Unless you plan on writing songs by ear with your band, recording them, and only performing your tunes to make a living (which is highly unlikely), you will need to be able to read music in order to get called for a gig. In the real world of performing, guitarists are often required to read music during a performance that they have never seen before, or to learn music for a show that they will not be able to memorize because time doesn’t allow for it. To put it plainly, over the past 6 years, doing at least 100 shows a year, I have read music in some capacity at every single gig. If it weren’t for my ability to read, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college for music, I wouldn’t perform and teach as much as I do, and I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills, which would really stink. All seriousness aside, reading music should be fun and exciting because you can play new music all of the time, you will have more opportunities to play with others, and you will understand how to make ink on a page inspire a sound that captivates an audience as it comes from your fingers! Thank you for reading my first blog, and I hope to see you in the GPMA Guitar Ensemble or out there on the bandstand reading and having lots of fun!
Instructor Levi Henson