Monday, April 22, 2019

A little rant: don’t diss those who don’t read music

Somebody wrote to me recently about how other choir members look down on them because they don’t read music.

It made me very angry that this sort of thing is still happening.

Their choir leader hands out sheet music for all the songs they learn (although recordings of parts are also made available).

Some singers prefer to learn by ear and to listen attentively rather than having their eyes down on pieces of paper. They have chosen not to use sheet music (even though they are able to understand a fair amount of musical notation).

Unfortunately, other choir members (and even their leader sometimes) make comments like “I don’t know how you manage just from lyrics!” There’s an implication that choosing not to to read music is somehow inferior.

I’m amazed that this kind of prejudice is still around (I’m even more amazed that I still hear about children today being told to “Stand at the back and mime.”).

The Natural Voice Network (NVN) was formed precisely to counter this kind of attitude. The idea that ‘proper’ music and choral singing is only available to those who can read music. The idea that it is an inevitable development to move from learning by ear to learning from sheet music. The idea that those who know about music theory are ‘better’ in some ways than those who ‘just’ sing for fun.

And it’s not just singers. I even read a blog post the other day about choir leaders with no formal music education and how they shouldn’t be running choirs or charging money for workshops.

Why is it so hard for some people to believe that singing and choir leading ability is not directly related to formal music training? There are brilliant (and awful) choir leaders (and singers), some of whom have a formal music training, and others who don’t.

I had hoped that after 20 years of the NVN, and with so many and varied community choirs and singing opportunities here in the UK, that things had changed. Sadly no.

My advice to the person who wrote to me was to use their learning by ear skills as an advantage.

It is possible to feel sorry for those who have to rely on bits of paper to learn songs. It’s a shame that some people rely so much on their eyes rather than their ears when learning songs. It makes somebody very vulnerable when they have to depend on a piece of paper rather than their ears and memories.

I’m amazed how people who usually learn songs from sheet music flounder in the workshops I run. They are very much outside their comfort zone at the start, but almost always feedback that it’s been both an educational and enjoyable experience. They wish their own choir did it more!

Learning by ear has its own strengths which should be celebrated. If you learn from sheet music, please don’t think you are superior to those who choose to learn by ear. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Rant over.

You might also be interested in these three posts:

Singers who learn by ear vs. those who use sheet music – what happens when they swap?

How to cope with sheet music if you don’t read and usually learn songs by ear

How to cope with learning by ear if you usually read music notation

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Chris Rowbury




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