Befuddled

“Let the improvement of yourself keep you so busy that you have no time to criticize others.” ― Roy T. Bennett.

     The complexity of learning to read music is not to be understated.  Yet, in many ways, it can also seem straightforward.  Perhaps this dichotomy is not as contrasting as it may seem?  I have only been learning for a few weeks and, technically, I have read and understood all that I have learnt, thus far.  I can now sit at my keyboard and read a stave in bass clef or in treble clef and identify the notes in the sheet music.  I can also identify the notes on the keyboard.  I have learnt quite a lot of the instructional markings that are written within music and I can now sit at my keyboard and play simple pieces.  This is all good and it is exciting.

     So, where is the difficulty, you may wonder?  The challenges, at this early point in my learning are, to me, a little daunting.  Piano music is written in two staves, rather than one.  These run one above the other; the top being for treble clef (right hand) and the lower stave is for bass clef (left hand).  My immediate question has to be how on earth is it possible to read both staves of music at the same time?  I know, I will look back on this question and chuckle, in time.  I certainly hope I will! Right now, however, it presents as a mountain awaiting to be climbed.

     Then I find that while being able to read the music on paper is a skill that I am doing pretty well at, combining playing and reading music is not that easy.  What I mean is that, at this stage, I still seem to have to consciously state the name of the note, in my mind, as I read it.  It is, perhaps, a little uncertainty that causes this?  I am then concerned because I have to play slowly, in order to be able to see and then identify the next note I am reading, in this way, before the next note is played.  I’m not sure that will make sense, but you may understand what I am describing?  This leaves me wondering whether I will ever simply see the note and play it instantly without having to name the note in my head and double check that it is the correct note?  Again, I am sure that I will look back on this concern and laugh.

     Then, there’s the issue of knowing a piece of music.  For me, this is generally helpful, for I seem to have the ability to play music ‘by ear’; without reading the written form of the music.  Now that I know the keynotes, I can practice playing a tune from memory and practice simply improves my performance.  That said, I want and need to play not from memory, but from reading the sheet music.  I notice, however, that as soon as I  recognise the piece, I start playing ‘by ear’ and then I lose track of following the written music, because playing from memory enables me to play faster.  I then question how I will ever be able to unite my knowledge of a piece of music from memory with the written form of the musical piece?

     Another challenge is that of playing with both hands.  What is your method?  Instinctively, I am learning the treble clef element of the piece.  I learn that first.  In fact, this is where I am at; learning and playing what is in treble clef (for the right hand).  I believe that I am better off focusing on this and then, once I have learnt a piece of music, to repeat the process for the bass clef element of the piece (for the left hand).  I am wondering whether this is the best approach?  Would you agree, or is there another way to tackle this?  I am questioning whether or not, once I learn the bass clef element of the piece, I will actually be able to bring both the treble and bass clef pieces together and play left and right hands at the same time?  Ok, I can hear those of you, advanced of my position, chuckle at how challenged I feel in this aspect of my learning.

     These points are some of what makes me feel the sense of complexity in learning to read music.   Yet, in describing that I have learnt a lot in a couple of weeks and that I have an ability to play ‘by ear’, also evidences why I feel a sense of straightforwardness about learning to play piano.  Is this really a dichotomy?  Are these contrasting aspects or, in fact, simply the way it feels to learn and to identify my challenges?

     I would add that I am thoroughly enjoying the learning process and the awakening that comes with taking up a musical instrument.  I am a little behind where I would like to be, given that last week my Parkinson’s symptoms flared up and prevented me from practice on all but one day.  This was particularly frustrating, given that my keyboard has newly arrived and my excitement had to be placed on hold while I was unwell.

     Are you learning to play a musical instrument?  Are you advanced in your music playing and do you recall feeling rather daunted, way back at the beginning of your learning?  Are you a fellow middle aged person, like me, starting out on your learning in the world of music or, are you thinking back to being at this stage as a school child who learnt to play in your childhood?  Should I continue or do my questions and concerns affirm that I should, alternatively learn to play the triangle? I will, of course, be a little mortified if you state that the triangle is my best way forward!  Now, where are my faux-fur coat and candelabra?  Liberace would not be impressed!

     What about disability and illness?  Are you, like me, a person who is newly learning to play a musical instrument while also coping with the symptoms of disability and/or illness?  How do you cope? What challenges does your disability or illness cause for you, in learning?

     (c) Dean G. Parsons. 2020.

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