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The Importance of Notation in Music Education

posted 6 Feb 2014, 05:24 by Chris Morris


Those who can't do, teach.”

The origins of the above quote are unknown, and while I would argue that the quote is also untrue, it is true that for many struggling musicians, music education is probably the first thing that is jumped upon in a moment of panic. A quick Google search will reveal that in Dundee alone, you can find countless musicians offering tutoring services – some as part of bigger businesses, along with some private tutors. And at first glance this seems like a good thing – more choice, more opportunities. However, having been a part of the music education scene for the last several years, I've sadly seen many music tutors come and go, and I've developed an understanding that there is a difference between being a good musician, and a good tutor.

Of course, this particular blog is focused on talking about notation, and I'd like to make it clear from the very beginning that I believe it is entirely possible to be a great musician without being able to read a note of music. However, herein lies the difference between being a musician and a tutor – all good tutors must be able to read notation. This is the only strict principal I stick by in Dundee Drum Academy. All pupils learn different pieces of music and in different ways, but every pupil at Dundee Drum Academy must be able to read music. Any of my pupils will tell you that before they have so much as tapped any of the drums, I have written out some basic notation and explained how to read it.

So, why? Why don't I just give them examples and tell them what to do? There are a thousand reasons for this, but I will give my three main reasons:

  1. Homework

  2. Exams

  3. What's the difference between paying for instrumental lessons and sitting at home watching YouTube for free?

Let's start with that last point. Instrumental lessons are expensive. At Dundee Drum Academy I try to remain competitive and offer great deals like DDA Unlimited, but – and it pains me to say this because I've never considered myself a “businessman” of any description – Dundee Drum Academy is a business. Businesses have to make money, and private tutors are also expensive because they are giving up their time, and unfortunately most of them have quite large egos to feed (Sorry guys, but we are talking about musicians!).

So with the price of lessons being so high, you would surely expect the quality of lessons to match the price. In a tutor you want someone who is both an experienced musician, and also someone who understands the process of learning an instrument, the needs of individual pupils, how to assess how far and understand why a pupil has or hasn't progressed. And notation plays a huge part in that. For example, at the top of this page there were several “BOOM”s and “BANG”s underneath the title. Without looking back up, can you possibly relate back the exact order of those words?

My guess is that you can't. I certainly can't, and I wrote it! So then, how could a tutor expect a new pupil, who has never played the drums before, to remember all of those alien concepts they spent half an hour waffling on about? However, if they were taught how to read some basic notation at the start of the lesson, their tutor will have written it down for them on a piece of manuscript paper to take away and study.

Thus, we arrive back at the first point – homework. It's possible to learn an instrument with just half an hour or so practise in your lesson each week. But I would think that every tutor would encourage practice at home, and this can't happen without notation. While I was studying music we had a drum tutor who was an incredible musician, but unfortunately not a good tutor. And yes, the reason was because he couldn't read notation. He'd show us how to play something extraordinary, and then he'd leave us in a room to get on with it. I didn't learn very much that year.

You may be thinking that the middle point only applies to school pupils, and you'd only be half right. Of course, in SQA exams, our school pupils have to present a piece of written music to an external examiner and perform it for them. So, an instrumental instructor within the schools that can't read music would be a ridiculous situation. Thankfully, I know some of the instructors, and of course they are all very comfortable with reading and teaching complex notation.

So if instrumental instructors in our schools have to be at such a high level, why aren't all music tutors at such a level? Because after all, exams aren't just for school pupils. Graded exams are available for all ages through places like Trinity Guildhall and Rockschool (and I will take any and all opportunities to remind you that Dundee Drum Academy currently holds a 100% success rate across all exams!). Notation is once again vital in this situation. You are even asked to sight-read (play a piece of written music that you've never seen before) a piece in order to test how well you can read notation.

Besides these three points, a musician who decides to learn without the use of notation is limiting themselves to a great number of fantastic publications that are available which serve only to assist them on their musical journey. One of the reasons it's called Dundee Drum Academy is that I offer an academic way of learning drum kit through books. There are several great drum kit books out there which are unfortunately unavailable to a musician who has never learned to read them.

For those points alone, I will always believe that a good tutor is one who can teach you to read notation. Of course, it doesn't simply stop there – good tutors have to know a variety of things in order to see success in their pupils, but notation should be the first concern of any good tutor. And it doesn't take long to learn; my pupils learn to read basic music within the first couple of minutes of their first lesson. On other instruments it can be a little more difficult because they have notes to learn, but with patience, everyone can and should learn to read those dots.

After all, the pen is mightier than the drum stick.