As a private flute teacher for 15 years, I have come to a great understanding of how the brain learns new subjects. First, it helps to have an interest in the new subject. We all have a natural desire to learn, we might not realize it because we tend to often be forced to learn so much about subjects we’re not interested in, but think about how many new talents you pick up from day to day on your own, like learning to ride a bike, learning how to swim, learning a new video game. When you’re interested in the subject something magical happens… you are capable of really focusing for long periods of time on that one subject. If you lack this desire in music then the following will be very difficult for you because it is a tedious breakdown on how to learn to read music. It’s like learning how to read a new language, there is no short cut, yet a lot of music teachers try to take short cuts, but if you want to become a great reader of music then here is how.
When you read music, you are reading several components of music all at the same time and trying to keep a steady beat…. now that’s multitasking to the extreme! Your brain will not be able to do everything at once, to begin with, so the easiest thing to do is to separate each component of music and work on them individually. First you should work on reading rhythm. Please understand that music happens under a controlled measurement of time and this time is measured by a steady beat that a musician has to learn to feel naturally. In order to do this you will have to be able to tap your foot to a machine that keeps the beat (a metronome) and play the notes written within the value of time that is given to each note. Understanding the value of each note written in the music and how to play that note for the time equal to the note value is, in my opinion, the most important component of reading music. It’s equal to a carpenter using a measuring tape or a cook using cups and tablespoons and teaspoons to measure. This is why reading note values is where I put the emphasis the most for my beginner students. If you want to learn how to read music properly then start by reading a lot of rhythm sheets. Rhythm sheets can usually be found at the back of some band books. A rhythm sheet is music that has been written all in unison so you play the same note (usually a Bb) and you can focus on just the rhythm.
Here is the step by step process I give my students when they first learn to read music…
First, in order to get your foot used to tapping a steady beat while you play at the same time, I ask my students to use arrows to write bellow the note what your foot is doing at the time you play that note, so there should be a down arrow when your foot is going down and an up arrow when your foot goes up. For quarter notes you should have a down and an up, for half notes a down up down up, an eighth note gets either a down or an up, etc. You can double check your work by making sure each measure starts with a down beat and that there are enough beats in each measure (4/4 time gets 4 beats, 3/4 time gets 3 beats and 2/4 time gets 2 beats per measure (one beat = a down and an up arrow)). Once this is done then start playing the rhythm and make sure your foot matches what the arrows are telling it to do. It is important that your foot hits the up beat like it hits the down beat even though your foot has a floor to actually hit for the downbeat and none for the up beat. Also at this time you shouldn’t be worried about your foot keeping a steady beat…. that comes later.
Once you’ve matched the note values to what your foot has done, repeat this step about 4 times until you really have the hang of the proper lengths of the notes based on your foot tapping. Make sure to be starting each note with a proper articulation (with a “T” sound). Also make sure to articulate notes even if they are slurred because slurred notes still have rhythm and this exercise allows you to hear what the rhythm will sound like. The only notes you don’t articulate will be the notes that are tied. Notes are considered tied together when it is the same pitch that has a slur. Notes are usually tied because the pitch is extended across a bar line. Now you should be ready to repeat this exercise but now using a metronome. Start on a slow speed and then gradually increase the speed on the metronome until you are close to the speed at which the piece will be played.
The next step will be to become familiar with the fingerings of the actually pitches by playing one note at a time. This part of the exercise does not need to be in tempo and you don’t have to worry about the rhythm. You might find that after playing just the rhythm so many times you tend to play the notes in rhythm, but it’s not until you can play the notes along with your foot tapping to a metronome, that it will be considered accurate.
This brings me to the final step which is what I just mentioned at the end of my last paragraph. Now you should be ready to tap your foot to a metronome while playing the correct pitches and the correct time based on the motion of your foot. Again, start slow and gradually increase the speed of the metronome.
Now that you know what the piece sounds like, you can now add slurs. My advice would be to put a “T” above the notes that get tongued and an “S” above the ones that get slurred. You can also add the dynamics….
Good Luck with this!