Music Literacy

by John Baker

bakerWhat is a good working definition of music literacy? The ability to read music. Yes, it is that simple… sort of.

Ask yourself: when did I become an independent musician? Do you remember? Did you have a choir director or private music instructor that took the time to lead you to this magical point? Did you wait until college to fully understand how to negotiate this foreign language? Perhaps, even now, you do not feel like you are an independent musician. Whatever your background, teaching musical independence is something you can and must do for you and your singers.

When I started teaching choir at Rex Putnam High School in 1979, I was barely able to read music myself. The pressure I felt to put a decent-sounding choir on stage was stronger than the pressure to develop musicianship in the singers.

After my first few years of teaching I was catching on with classroom management, scheduling concerts, fundraisers, concert attire, pleasing the administration, etc. I remember a student or two coming back from college and sharing how difficult the music theory and ear training classes were. I always agreed and shared their pain.

I also filed those comments in the back of my mind for a few years until the light bulb went off in my head. Teach the choir students to read music! Novel idea, Baker. Really! Who does that? Certainly not everyone.

In 1984 I was finishing the coursework for my masters degree and needed a project or a problem to solve. I chose to develop a sight reading and music theory course that could be implemented in 5-10 minute segments of choir class each day. Having a well planned program was exactly what I needed to introduce choir students to the world of musical literacy. Since 1986 I have sold hundreds of copies of this program. It is being used in middle and high Schools throughout the Northwest. Since then, I have added rhythmic and melodic sight reading examples for classroom use, as well as OSAA inspired practice sheets.

It does not really matter what program you use. It does matter if you are consistent in your implementation. Ask yourself how you learned to read music. You must start somewhere, start at the beginning and be very basic. It may be boring to your advanced students, but they will soon appreciate the extra work and review when their peers begin to catch on. You did not learn to speak English overnight. Those of you learning a foreign language need years to accomplish the basics of the new concepts and sounds - literally years! Can you expect young singers to be able to read music in a few short lessons? Absolutely not!

I will get a number of calls in February to help teachers prepare their students for the sight reading at the OSAA Contest. I am happy to help prepare choirs for music literacy, but to be fair, this conversation should take place in the fall. It takes years to develop the skills necessary to decode the many symbols and nomenclature facing our, at times, frustrated students.

Some directors say that they do not have time to include sight reading in their daily lesson planning. This was my excuse back in the early 1980's. Now I say, "You don't have time not to teach sight reading." Other teachers tell me that they avoid teaching too much musicianship because the choir doesn't enjoy the process. Whose fault is that? Make the process fun. If it is fun for you, it will be fun for your students! Once the singers begin to gain the necessary skills, you will find that you can learn more music. You can also learn more challenging literature. Your college-bound singers will love you even more because you added rigor and challenge to your syllabus. In addition, you will make administrators happy because you are teaching literacy skills. This becomes a win-win for everyone.

Break out the rhythms, sol-fa, and grand staff… you can doooo eeeeeeeet!

For further information or scheduling, you can reach John Baker HERE.