And now for something completely different …
I heard an interesting comment the other day (and not for the first time). Two friends were discussing music with a couple of other people; the exact subject matter I do not know, but what I heard was familiar …
“Well, if they can’t read music they are not a real musician.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t respond well to those sorts of comment. I think it’s a bit like someone saying, “If you don’t understand how an engine works then you can’t drive a car” or “If you don’t understand how electricity is generated, you can’t switch on a light bulb.”
Sure, understanding about engines and the generation of electricity is very important to the designers who create these things, but for the consumer? I know reading music is an important skill for many, but what about those great musicians who have never seen a musical note? Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Art Tatum (arguably one of the greatest ever jazz pianists) are/were all blind, but few would say they were not musicians because they couldn’t read music.
I have a couple of friends who are totally blind who also have perfect pitch so they can sit down in any situation and play along with whatever is playing, without having to be told that it is in B-flat or whatever. They don’t read it, they hear it. So I guess they could use a counter-argument and say, “Unless you have perfect pitch you can’t be a true musician because you have to read the dots to play the tune.”
As with all arguments, there are flaws from both sides; flaws which seem to relate more to human insecurity than anything else. We are not always comfortable with views or abilities different from our own and in defending our corner we often unintentionally alienate others.
Surely the issue isn’t whether one can read music or not, it’s more a case of whether one can make music (as opposed to just playing the instrument). The difference between these two is light years apart, and I know that in any situation I’d rather play with passionate, non-reading musicians than sight-reading automatons with no feel.
Thankfully, most of the musicians I work with are musicians first and foremost some of whom read and some of whom do not. And those who read? It is well down their list of priorities for playing. They see it as a tool not a dictum!