Should I learn to read music? Or not?

Depending on who you talk to, the answer to this question will vary from, “Yes, of course! You must.” to “No. Don’t do it!” Let’s talk about the middle way, and how the best answer for you depends on you, your strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, your aspirations. It may also depend on who your teacher is and what resources you have available. 

I think the most important take away from this message is this: “Don’t let your musical expression be limited by your ability (or inability ) to read music.” Would anyone say to a two year old child, “Stop talking. Stop figuring this out on your own! You must learn to read first. Only play what you can read.” Most parents know better! Yet music education is so often presented in this manner.

At the risk of stepping on a few toes, I’m sorry, but I must say, (because it affects so many students) many music teachers seem to fear letting their students improvise. Some students do play by ear quite well and do avoid reading their music. But if they can figure things out on their own, why not let them? A well rounded music education will include both sight reading and improvisation or playing by ear. If I were the teacher of that student, I would clarify the objective. If we’re working on sight reading, lets play it as written. If we are working on improv or playing by ear, let’s get off the page and learn how to do that too.

I was delighted to learn something fun from a friend studying harp at a conservatory in England. I’ll never forget the pleasing sound of her English accent as she described “disaster management.” While preparing very challenging classical pieces, her instructor would insist that she understand the chord structure of her pieces, and develop the ability to improvise ( “off the page”), so that when a disaster happens and notes are forgotten, she is able to improvise until she can recover.

The ability to play music as written is essential for most public education music courses such as marching band, orchestra, or concert band. It is obviously essential for serious classical musicians and music majors. It’s really handy for church music directors. 


…reading music is absolutely NOT essential for casual musical activities such as jam sessions or popular music even at the professional level. No doubt, a top notch session player might sometimes be more marketable if he could read music, but NOT reading music was obviously NOT a problem for Paul McCartney or Glen Campbell. 


…some instruments and genres have a wealth of delicious and wonderful, perhaps unrecorded, traditional tunes that you can learn on your own if you can read music. 

Reading music can be a big plus so long as you don’t let it limit you to playing only what you are able to read. When learning to read your native language, they say, “You learn to read, then you read to learn.” The same can be said for music, but the value of reading music depends upon what your goals are. Our goals vary widely. 

 Another thing that varies widely is how readily people can learn to read music. It will come much more readily for some people than for others. Conversely, (and very fortunately!) people who have trouble with sight reading often do very well at playing by ear, memorizing, and learning by rote. So, if reading music is something that comes very slowly for you, learn to read if you want to, but please, please, please don’t let that be a brick wall between you and playing the music you love. 

You can learn to play music much faster than you can learn to read it. I have a 9 year old piano student who can play arpeggios and accompany me while I sing Unchained Melody. Yes, even that flat 3 chord in the bridge. He also enjoys reading music, but it will be a long time before he can read what he plays in Unchained Melody. His physical skill to play music develops much faster than his ability to read the notes. His ability to understand the theory develops faster than his ability to read music as well. And that is true for everyone.

In all fairness to teachers who push sight reading: that’s what I used to do. Oh! It’s so much easier to teach them to read first! Just teach them to read, then hand them some music and say, “Learn this.”   (...and then help them of course.) When my husband warned me against basing my teaching on reading music, I took the idea to heart, but oh! It is so much more work! I don’t have a handy book to follow. I have to create methods and materials. Fortunately, I LOVE creating materials, but it is quite daunting to keep up with everybody. So, I imagine that if there were more handy teaching materials that were not based on reading first before playing, I think more teachers would use them. If you know of any you like, let me know!

If you decide that you would like to move forward in musical expression faster than your ability to read music will allow, look for a teacher who can teach you to improvise and play by ear. I’m working on materials for beginner improv. I’ll share those as soon as I can. It’s called Canjam. Until you find a helpful mentor in this area, don’t be afraid to go exploring on your own. Einstein said that the highest form of research is play! Always feel free to play like yer three!

And if you decide to develop the ability to read music, be sure that you spend plenty of time reading at an easy level, and then progress very gradually to higher levels of difficulty. Fortunately, there are lots of materials around for that!

Book review: The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist by Glenn M. Martin

I’ve been so anxious to share this valuable resource and have also found it difficult to keep it brief. I finally realized that it can be an ongoing conversation and a group project. I know of no other printed music education resource that is more valuable, more thorough, or more versatile. No matter what level of musicianship you have, if you want more, this book will help you get there. Caution to absolute beginners: you will need help, but if your work is modified correctly, your work will not be difficult. Most of you will want the treble clef version, but there are four other versions. Be sure to get the right one for you. If you’re not sure, let me know; I can help. 

     If you all were digging for gold instead of learning to play music, I would say, “This book is the mother load.” It will be the best $14 you ever spend. Just start digging and two inches down, you’ll hit a vein of gold. You cannot exhaust it in your lifetime. 

     The purpose of this book is to make your playing intuitive and free. More feeling, less thinking. This book is designed to develop skill and brain pathways, so that you can play your instrument with the same ease that a singer can sing. Not so much thinking about what key, or which scale, or which chord we’re on...just knowing a sound you wish to make and letting it flow through you. Even if you find it hard to believe that you could reach this point, or if you choose to practice a bit less than others might, everything you practice here will bring ability and insight to help you progress in skill and understanding. Brain development is a slow process, though very rewarding, and if you practice as suggested in The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist regularly and long enough, you will be able to play your instrument as fluently as you can speak or sing. 

     If you get this stuff early, it might seem that you are more talented or more musical than another person, but really what it is is: brain development. ...and if you don’t have it, you can get it. So, whether you are just beginning to learn a few notes, or chords, or whether you know your theory and can play circles around most people you know, the practice method suggested in this book will help you to get where you wanna go.  

     You may have heard it suggested, “Learn Sweet Georgia Brown in every key.” This is that on steroids. AND it starts you with just one note, which is why I say beginners can use it too. (with help) The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist is brilliantly designed and leaves no stone unturned. You will play (and hear) every possible relationship you will ever need to know and have under your fingers in modern, diatonic music. You are actually learning the language of music in much the same way you learned to speak. The difference is, most of us don’t get enough musical stimulation (or appropriate mentoring) to learn the instruments outside of our bodies as well as we have learned our voices. There is no reason why you can’t develop the same intuition and ease using these outside the body instruments as well as you can with your voice. (...and everyone can learn to sing by the way too.) 

     If you buy the book, or if Amazon lets you peek inside, you may feel that it is important to be able to read music. The ability to read music is definitely handy, but not necessary, if you have a good helper. Everyone Can Jam is growing, but is still small enough that I can say, if you need help, I will help you. As a matter of fact, I am very pleased to welcome the author of The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist, Glenn M. Martin, to the Everyone Can Jam community! He has graciously consented to allow me to post YouTube videos helping you with your work in The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist. 

     So, lets get started, and if you need help, let me know. I will create helpful YouTube video lessons based on the questions that arise or the level of ability that you are at. You can subscribe to my email list on my home page and that makes it easy to stay in touch.  

     !!Remember to get the right version for you based on which instrument you play!! 

After the link, I have a few words for folks of varying ability and knowledge. 

Amazon link to The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist:


Absolute beginners and intermediate level:

Don’t worry if you can’t read music. I can teach you how to work through the exercises using the numbers provided in front of each exercise, and mentor you a bit in the basic knowledge you need to play the exercises in the various keys. You can learn to read music, of course, but that will take a while, and you can learn to play the exercises much faster than you can learn to read. It’s just like being two. You can talk before you can read, and it would be silly to make you wait until after you can read to be allowed to talk. 


Advanced and very experienced players:

If you know a lot of theory, but don’t know how to read music, you’ll be fine. If you don’t know any theory, but know how to read music, you’ll be fine. If you run into a snag, let me know. You’ll see very quickly how the exercises will develop your ability to play intuitively. After learning to play the exercises through the circle of fourths and fifths, you will then play them through major and minor third cycles as well as whole step cycles, augmented fourth and diminished fifths as well as chromatic. 

Brain Blog #4: Isolating skills (so you can progress faster)

In Brain Blog #3, we took a look at athletic training and discussed how some of those obviously sensible practices, such as warm up, isolating skills and bringing each skill to a level of proficiency before combining skills can be important in developing musical expression.

If we go to our first few music lessons and expect to come home playing something that sounds like a familiar tune, that’s kinda like trying to play a game of basketball before you’ve learned how to run and dribble at the same time...and you haven’t practiced shooting yet. 

The tricky thing with music is that it takes a little probing and maybe a new mindset to begin to recognize and break down all the various skills we are using...and to appreciate the complexity of each one. My daughter, Jennifer O’Connor, teaches violin to adult beginners. (  I learned a lot about teaching music from her first few lessons. If you are one of her Hot Violinists, please forgive me if I get the details wrong, but if my memory serves correctly, we spent a week NOT making a sound. On the first day, we did not even pick up the violin: we learned how to have good posture and stay relaxed. Upon learning how to hold the violin, I realised how important this is, because it is SO awkward! At first. That is the cognitive phase for ya. (At this point, I’m assuming that you are familiar with the three phases of Skills Acquisition. If not, read Brain Blog 1 and 2 first.) It was very difficult to make holding that instrument comfortable, and I found it very challenging to hold the violin without developing a kink in my neck. So, it makes a lot of sense to work on just that for a while before adding another new, awkward feeling skill such as holding the bow! 

We learned how to be relaxed and how to come back to that feeling often. Which was important, because every new, awkward skill has potential for developing tension. I think we learned how to hold the bow before picking up the violin. Oh yeah! We actually learned how to hold a pencil before learning to hold the bow. We practiced a good bow hold on a light easy pencil before using our bow hold with the heavier, longer bow. After learning how to hold the bow AND the violin at the same time, we learned how to make one good sound on an open string before learning to finger different notes. 

...and this is a good place to interject one of my favorite stories: Jenny told me about a student who was so delighted with her first good sound...just one wonderful sound...the student exclaimed, “Ah! This is why people are depressed! Because they do not play the violin!”

You DO NOT have to play a familiar tune to feel made whole by your music.

Just one good sound will do it.

There is something magical and very scientifically sound about vibration and sound and how healing it is. Especially vibrating strings! 

After my first few violin lessons, I felt a lot better about giving my guitar students some very simple warm ups and exercises to develop skill and good technique before trying to have them feel like they are making music. And I find that as long as my students understand why we are doing an exercise, and what magical power they are going to gain from doing the exercise, they do them.

Exercises and warm ups do not need to be a long part of your practice. They can be if you are willing. Personally, if I only have 30 minutes to practice, I usually don’t play my music. I do my Well Tempered exercises, (scroll up for blog/book review about The Well-Tempered Instrumentalist ) because they give me magical powers. During a busy time, I can do my Well Tempered work consistently for a few weeks, then go back to playing music on my instrument and find that I make more connections, play more intuitively, and my fingers find their way to the desired location much more readily than they did before. 

Next time, we’ll talk about the “to read or not to read music” question. But let’s say you ARE reading music. When you make your first attempt at reading a new piece of music, try letting it be ok to NOT play the correct rhythm. Oh! Did I just hear a crack in the cosmic egg? Playing an incorrect rhythm?! Why that’s blasphemy! Nope. It’s not blasphemy, and it’s not dangerous, as long as you have easier pieces to play where you ARE focusing on correct rhythm and timing issues. Your brand new piece that you are reading for the first time, does not have to be played with perfect timing. You can polish up on the timing later. First, focus on reading the notes, accurately, in order. This is a good time to establish your best fingerings, and accomplish that while you let yourself off the hook for timing. Jenny calls this the land where time stands still. I love that. When you are still learning to read music, you need time to focus on just reading and finding your notes, the land where time stands still. If you are concerned about learning the rhythm “wrong,” you can spend some time tapping only the rhythm while not being concerned about the notes. 

Here’s one more example about isolating skills:

I used to think that a song like Tom Dooley....a couple guitar chords to strum and a familiar song to sing, was a good place to start for a beginning guitarist. 

Not no more.

For some students, yes, but most students need to work up to that. It’s easy to think that strumming two chords and singing Tom Dooley is ...oh...maybe three things: strumming, singing, and a couple chords. We’ve already talked about how playing one guitar chord is NOT one skill. It is several notes and making just one good sounding note for a beginning guitarist can be a challenge. 

Lets took at the various skills required when strumming and singing a two chord song. 

1. Fingering the chords

2. Changing chords

3. Knowing when to change chords

4. Sense of where the beat is

5. Singing rhythm that is different than the strum rhythm (The tongue tends to pull the strumming hand along with it.)

6. Sense of pitch

7. Holding the instrument

8. Ignoring the pain on your fingertips

9. Ignoring the frequent buzzes and dead sounding strings

10. Remembering I am a beautiful, wonderful person even though I can’t do this...YET

11. Relaxing often instead of constantly squeezing with all your might the whole entire time

Usually, when I have a beginning music student, they are already good at most of the necessary skills... and usually, there are one or two skills that need to be developed before they are pleased with the sound of their music. I fear that often, beginning students are given the impression that they are not musical, when in reality, so many skills and abilities are already in place, and work is required on just one or two isolated skills in order to make the whole thing come together. 

One thing I desire for you, if you are a student of music, is to be able to understand your own process and to be able to modify for yourself. You know when a new skills comes with ease and you know when you feel overwhelmed. When you feel overwhelmed, try to be aware of the various skills you are using. See if you can identify the ones where you are strong and the ones that need work. If you can isolate a skill and bring your weak area into the associative phase before trying to combine it with other new skills, things will go more smoothly. 

Once the skills are combined, you can still practice by placing your focus on one skill at a time and cutting your self some slack in the other areas for the moment. When most of the skills you are using are approaching the autonomous phase, you can begin to just relax and enjoy the flow of music. (You can also relax and enjoy practice in the meantime ; )

You can experience the wonderful flow of the autonomous phase two ways:


NOW: By choose a very simple musical expression that is well within your skill level (more about this when we talk about Canjam).


LATER: By practicing for many hours and years while you bring your more complex musical expressions into the autonomous phase. 

I suggest doing both. 

I actually think the second one is easier to understand how it works. That’s why I’m working on a project called Canjam. Canjam is a way of facilitating improv for beginners.  

Canjam will give you ideas for using what you can already do with ease to make music that sounds good and feels good to you. 

Today, we talked about isolating skills, so that we can design exercises to bring each individual skill into the associative phase more quickly. In the next brain blog, I’ll give you more specific examples of what some of these exercises might look like. But week, we’re going to talk about the “to read or not to read music” question.

In the mean time, if you have any questions, or need help breaking things down into isolated skills, join our Everyone Can Jam private Facebook Page. We can discuss things there. 

Brain Blog #3: How watching athletic coaches can help us learn to play music.

Much of modern western culture is steeped in an approach to music education which does not serve well the majority of people who desire to play music. When developing ideas that DO work for the majority of aspiring musicians, one thing that helps a lot is to draw on the vast amount of successful practices used by athletic trainers. Yes! Sports and Music!  Our culture helps us to believe that they are two very different things, but athletic training and musical training have much in common. When learning to use our muscles to do amazing things as musicians, we must use the same process of skills acquisition used by athletes. One of the biggest differences in music is that we are coordinating more muscles, smaller muscles in finer movements, which means MORE brain, hence the whole process takes longer to get to a point where we feel like we’re “doing it.” 

So, lets take a look at how some familiar practices in athletics can help us use what we now understand about how the brain learns music. 

When we gain a new physical skill, we must pass through the three phases of Skills Acquisition:

  1. Cognitive

2. Associative

3. Autonomous

There’s no way around it. The only way out is through. Eventually, you will learn to enjoy  the entire process, because you will see your progress sooner and you will have previously enjoyed the result of completing the three phases. You will understand what it takes, and you will feel grateful to yourself for giving yourself this time to develop magical powers.

As aspiring musicians, we value highly the autonomous phase. I think we tend to expect to get there sooner than we can. If we can just have realistic expectations about how long it takes, that helps a lot. When we understand these three phases and begin to identify them in our own work, we can measure our progress in a way that is not discouraging. 

In order to learn to play music (or shoot hoops) we have to try to do something that we can not do... YET. For some reason, when a novice tries to shoot a basket, they’re usually ok with the cognitive phase. The cognitive phase is awkward. We have a lot of new things to think about. We experience failure. You WILL experience failure in the cognitive phase. A lot. When learning to play music, this is devastating for some people. Why is it harder to be ok with this in music? That is a topic for another day. I hope it will help to know that this is part of the process. Once you enter the associative phase, you have more ease and sometimes more success, but just when you think you’ve got it, there is another failure. It seems elusive. Now you have it. Now you don’t. When you are in the associative phase, you may play very well in practice, but one little thing (like the presence of a teacher) can give your brain some extra work, and boom it all falls apart. That’s because you are not in the autonomous phase yet. The associative phase is very long, you’re getting better, but it is not yet automatic. It takes many many repetitions to get a skill so automatic that it continues with ease or without you even thinking about it. 

Here’s the main thing that is used in athletic training that is often overlooked in music: In athletic training, the various skills required are usually isolated and worked on separately before trying to put them all together. When playing a song, you are using MANY skills!

Athletes also do many things to strengthen and tone their muscles that they absolutely do not do on the playing field. Have you ever seen a baseball player lifting weights during a game? Do they begin a game or practice of any kind without warming up first? What does practice look like? Do they just say, “Ok, practice has begun, lets play ball!” When we begin to learn to play music, do we expect to play music right away? When we sit down to practice, do we start with music? Or, might we start by warming up our body and working on some isolated skills. 

When you watch baseball practice, you will see them warming up. You will see batting practice. You will see pitchers practicing their pitch. You will see players practicing throwing, scooping up grounders. ...and these are champions and pros! They still practice their skills in isolation. They don’t just play the game. 

In music, there is a strong tendency to be in a hurry to get to the result. We wanna play music. That’s why we are in music lessons... and in modern western culture, most of us have certain expectations of what that result looks like. We want to sound like something familiar usually. Like something we’ve heard on the radio or at a concert. We often expect to sound kind of like people who have been developing their skills many hours a day for many years.

Most people are comfortable playing sports NOT at the pro level. Many people tend to expect their music to sound kinda like a pro! Many teachers and students approach the first lessons too eager to get to the desired result. We must slow down, develop some skills, and maybe NOT start with Sweet Home Alabama. It seems that all my students are willing to work on developing skills (that don’t sound like music yet) as long as they understand how this skill is going to enable them to eventually play the music they love. 

As a music teacher, I am consistently impressed by just how much we can break it down into smaller and smaller pieces: various skills that can be developed in isolation. This concept can be applied to any musical expression, but guitar is especially vulnerable to this problem, so I’ll start with a guitar example. Often a “beginner” guitar book will start with a G chord. !!! Full size chords like G and C and especially F are NOT beginner skills. We might tend to think of playing a G chord as one thing. We call ITa G chord” after all. Playing “a” G chord is WAY more than one thing. Even playing just one note on guitar, is not one thing! If you are not playing an open string, you are fretting with one hand. You are finding the sweet spot: the precise location to squeeze just behind the fret, so you don’t have to squeeze so hard, and by the time you get your other hand, pic, finger, or thumb on the correct string, your left hand fingertip is already hurting. And there are all these numbers! Whatever fret you’re on? ....students will often pic the string with THAT number, and not the string they are fretting. And then there’s that confounded pic! How do you hang on to that thing?! One note can be a lot at first. And when you are making a chord, you are playing several notes! That’s why I think it is a good idea to spend some time making one sound, developing good technique, gain some strength, and then start playing more than one note at a time with small chord shapes. You can learn five easy notes that sound quite musical here in this link.  And here’s a backing track to go with it.

I had a student who was struggling with her chords. Her guitar was very difficult to play for one thing, and her parents wanted her to prove herself before they would buy her a good guitar. So, one day, I started teaching her to play lead and she took right off! I suggested a few notes and asked her to just play with them. I played a groove and she played around. When we ended she enthusiastically exclaimed, “Can we do that again?!” She was so excited! One note at a time was doable on her very unplayable guitar. I also went out and found a great little cheap guitar at a pawn shop and turned it into a student loaner guitar. 

I hope we’ve agreed that playing a G chord is not one thing. Lets consider that many first guitar lessons will present something like strumming and singing a very familiar song like Tom Dooley. “It’s only two chords,” you may say. Is it? It is strumming, it is having a sense of timing, it is making not one chord (which is not one thing), but two. It is changing chords, on time! is singing a rhythm different than what you are playing. And there are distractions like hurting fingertips, random memories of people being publicly humiliated for not being good enough, and so on. That all uses up brain power. We can change all this.  

When students experience failure after many hours or years of practice, it is often because of one or two skills which have not been isolated and developed independently. Next time, we’ll take some musical examples and look at how much we can break it down into isolated skills and help each skill through the three phases of skills acquisition. It’s a little bit like slowing down so you can gain some traction and really get somewhere...and stop spinning your wheels. 

Coming up in Brain Blog #4: How to develop various skills in isolation

How the Brain Learns Music Part 1

Your Brain can know what to do much faster than it can tell your muscles what to do. 

This matters more when you’re learning to play music than say...unloading the dishwasher. Learning to make intricate, coordinated movements of many muscles takes a great deal of time. Learning to make those movements rapidly takes even more time. Learning to do it rapidly and with precise see where I’m going. It takes time! There is no way around that. Telling your muscles what to do and when is an extraordinarily complex task for your brain. That’s why it may seem impossible at first, and that is EXACTLY why it is so good for you and can prevent symptoms of Alzheimer's: it develops a great deal of brain pathways, and actually, it makes you smarter. At everything.

Much of the discouragement people face, even grave conclusions which lead people to stop trying, arise simply from asking the brain to do something it can’t do YET. 

“But I’ve watched my friend, my husband, my band mate learn something new so quickly!” you may say. Well, yes and no. You’ve watched someone who has already developed a required set of brain pathways succeed at something that is more difficult for you, because you have yet to develop those brain pathways. You can get them. Sometimes these brain pathways are developed sort of accidentally in early childhood, which creates an illusion of that talent being innate. But you can still develop them. It’s just a lot more uncomfortable when you’re grown than when you’re little and you’re still used to the daily struggle of learning basic things like walking, talking and putting food in your mouth. 

It’s easy to underestimate how complex musical expression is. It requires your brain to coordinate a great variety of skills. It uses almost all of your brain. It’s easy to conclude that a person “doesn’t have what it takes” when only one of the required skills is underdeveloped. What a tragic conclusion that is, when everything else is in place and only one or two areas of weakness may require intensive effort.

In this blog, I invite you to cut your brain some slack. Slow down and learn some strategies for cooperating with your brain as it develops the necessary pathways to tell your muscles what to do and when. It takes time. But if you slow down at first, you will progress faster. 

Your brain needs time to develop pathways for telling many muscles what to do. If you understand this process, you can design practice that will be more effective and get you where you want to go more quickly. But it will still take time. Be patient. (...until I write the blog on transcending patience. Then you don’t have to be patient any more.)

As a teen or an adult, you have already developed brain pathways that allow you to learn new tasks very quickly. You have grown accustomed to a process that looks like this:

  • Someone explains it to you.
  • You understand what to do.
  • You do it.
  • Boom. Yer done. 

When you are learning new movements that make music, it usually goes more like this: 

  • Someone explains it to you. 
  • You understand what to do (or not).
  • You try.
  • You fail.
  • You try again.
  • You fail.
  • You make adjustments.
  • You try again. 
  • You fail again.
  • After many attempts, you succeed. (Maybe you think you got it now.)
  • You try again. 
  • You fail. 

And so on...but over time, you succeed more and more often and finally you are consistently successful. You experienced a process similar to this when you were small as you learned to walk, feed yourself, and speak. Some of us are not used to this process anymore and consistent failure helps us to believe that we are just not good at it. The truth is that learning to play music is an extremely complex process.  Accomplished musicians are very familiar with the process of trying and failing, and trying again and again until they get it right. 

What’s going on here is... 

...the brain is changing physically with every experience you have and everything you do. 

It’s like that song by The Police: every breath you take, every move you make, every flat note you sing, every true note you sing, every string that buzzes, every violin bow that screeches, every key you press, every crystalline note you hear...reading this blog, 

EVERYTHING that happens in your life changes your brain physically...permanently.

..that’s why that Police song is probably playing in your head right now: Brain pathways. 

To appreciate what you are asking of your brain, consider this:

You have about 206 bones in your body. Over half of those bones are in your hands and feet. 26% of your bones are in your hands. 

Over one forth of your bones are in your hands! So, how many muscles is that? 



Half of those muscles are in your palm and the other half are in your forearm. Your muscles move your fingers through a complex system of tendons attaching muscle to bone, controlling very precise movements LONG DISTANCE. 66 muscles folks!...if you count both hands. Look at your hands for a minute and see if you can appreciate how beautiful and miraculous they are. Now. Even before you learn to play that next song. No wonder a kiss on the hand can be this much fun! And some of you also use muscles in your mouth, throat, chest, diaphragm, and other interesting places for music making. In order to coordinate those movements to make music, you must develop an extremely complex set of brain pathways. 

Photo by NicolasMcComber/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by NicolasMcComber/iStock / Getty Images

But take heart. At last count you had about 86 billion brain cells. That is often compared to the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. (...which is actually more like 200 billion, but who’s counting?) With 86 billion cells, imagine the number of possible connections and pathways you can make! It’s like driving in London. Only when you travel a brain pathway, it gets quicker and easier every a cowpath that becomes a dirt road that becomes a two lane highway, that becomes a freeway. At first it’s slow going. Later, you’re driving to California on Route 66.  

Sometimes when you learn a new movement, you already have the freeway and it’s quick and easy. (Like that person you’re comparing yourself to?) Sometimes, you don’t even have a cowpath to walk on. You’re cutting your way through brambles. But, I think I hear your brain saying:

Once you are conscious of the many miraculous things your brain has already learned to do, and you realize your brain is still developing, the process of reaching your goals can begin to seem very do-able. I’ve chosen to remind myself of this by not cutting my hair. I figure, once my braid touches the top of my jeans, I’ll actually be pretty good at playing the harp...and since I’m enjoying the process, learning to play the harp is no more difficult than letting my hair grow. 

I believe the real “gift” that anyone has if they are an accomplished musician is that they love it enough and they love the process enough to practice a LOT. Some of my students learn readily and have what seems like “innate” abilities, but they just don’t care to spend time with it, and they cease to progress. Other students get off to a pretty rough start and I may even feel skeptical and wonder, “Am I just leading them on?” But they LOVE it! They spend time with it. They practice and practice and eventually a few things fall into place and sometimes, suddenly they seem to have a natural ease they did not have before. They can learn new things more readily, and I say, “What happened!?” and they say, “I don’t know.”

It’s magic!

So... I did some research, and I found that what is often perceived as “giftedness” is now being shown to be the result of many years of practice. (...and I would add that certain kinds of early childhood experiences can do magical things too. More about that in Part II) I found this in a very academic research paper:

Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.
— K. Anders ERicson, Ralf Th. Kramp, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

I wish I had a video of me trying to play guitar and sing when I was a teenager. Or maybe it's good I don't! My voice would consistently slide off key, and my groove wasn’t very groovy. But over the years, I’ve continued to develop and where else can you go but better? ....and that’s a lot of years! The gift is what flows through you and the gift is the love that makes you study and practice. Study and practice enable the flow.

The other gift is experiences that develop brain the stereo record player my parents bought when I was four. ...and the reel to reel tape recorder that I used to listen to classic rock my big brothers had pirated from friends who owned the vinyl records....and the soulful licks of the master guitarist who lives with me. (Everything you experience changes your brain. Permanently.)

Success has more to do with well designed practice and good mentoring than it does with any “innate” abilities. Early childhood experiences help a great deal, but it’s never too late...especially if you embrace the concept that it’s the process that gives you joy...and music that is very simple can be played with flow and groove that will shake your bones. 

To be continued.

Please comment and let me know what you're most curious to read about in Parts II, III, and IV.

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Preview of Parts II, III, and IV:

Part II:  How the brain learns music

Part III:  How to apply this knowledge to practice

Part IV:  How to make music simpler, so you can stop thinking, start feeling, and flow


“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of of Expert Performance” K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, Psychological Review, Vol. 100No. 3, 363-406.

Further Suggested Reading:

The Brain The Story of You by David Eagleman

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith Young

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin



Everyone Can Learn to Play Music

Music is basic human behavior. Everyone is born with the ability to learn to do it, just as everyone is born with the ability to learn to speak. Brain research has shown this to be true. (Crowe) Almost everyone learns to speak. Why do so many people NOT do music? The really puzzling thing is, so many people want to. People LONG to play music. Many people choose other priorities, and many people believe that they cannot learn music.  

There are various reasons why people think they can’t do music and we will talk more about those reasons in the future. I will want to hear what you have to say about it too. 

For years now, I’ve been intrigued by stories of other cultures where everyone is a musician. Throughout most of human history, music was a normal everyday activity for everyone. (Levitin) How did this work? How does it work? And why is our modern western culture so different? These are questions I ask myself as I develop my philosophy of teaching music, and I have found some answers. We’ll talk about those later. 

The joy is in the process.

If you want to play music, I want to help you learn and progress. It doesn’t matter if you learn fast or slow. The process of learning and progressing is the part that brings the most joy anyway, and you can be in that process fully and enjoy that process fully regardless of your rate of progress. As a matter of fact, (here’s my first tip) you will progress faster if you let go of any attachment to the result and simply enjoy the process. Then, you get to be happy NOW. You’re not waiting for the result to happen. You’ll have less tension, pain and injury as well. 

You have to start where you’re at.

Teachers are frustrated and students are discouraged when the teacher has presented material that is too far ahead of where the student actually is. It’s not that you can’t learn it; it’s more like you’re trying to do algebra before you’ve learned addition and subtraction. You’ve gotta get your basics one or two at a time and not have way too many new things all at once. Modern music is very complex. We need to break it down into manageable pieces. 

Even if you already play music quite a bit, most people have holes to fill. Something is holding you back. There’s something you want to do, but you can’t (yet). You might not know what the hole is, but a good teacher can break it down, figure out what’s the hitch, help you fill that hole, and BOOM:

You have a breakthrough!

Breakthroughs are awesome! Suddenly you can make the infernal F chord on guitar! Now your fingers can reach that awkward chord shape. At last you can learn new rhythms just by hearing it, and you know when to change chords, or you know what note to play next...intuitively. Your sense of rhythm has improved and you can play with other musicians. You can sit with other musicians and play along. (On a song you never heard before!) You wrote a song!! FINALLY, you can improvise a solo at a jam session!! 

These are all breakthroughs my students have enjoyed. What breakthrough are you hoping for? (You can answer that when you enroll on my email list here or at the end.)

Music is important.

Learning music, especially music theory, creates brain pathways that make you smarter at EVERYTHING. Smart folks 2,500 years ago knew this. I mean, they may not have understood “brain pathways,” but they considered music to be the gateway to all the sciences. They believed that any medical doctor worth his salt would be well educated in music theory. They used music as medicine. (Crowe) And modern research has shown that developing many brain pathways by learning new things and problem solving can prevent Alzheimer's symptoms. (Eagleman) Music uses your whole brain, (Levitin) and I doubt there is anything that will create more interrelated pathways than studying and playing music.

Live music is better.

In my studies to become a therapeutic musician, I have gained a greater appreciation for real, live, unadulterated music. For now, I’ll just say, there is something about live, non-amplified music. There is a physical, scientific reason why it affects you. It heals you. It brings balance to your being...literally. Later on, we’ll talk about why. AND we’ll talk about the fact that music doesn't have to be complicated or played perfectly to have a therapeutic affect. 

Music is NOT just for the experts.

Music is like gardening. You can do it in a big, complicated way, or you can do it in a simple, easy way. You can be a master gardener, a farmer, or you can have a house plant. The simple, easy ways of making music, to a great extent, have been forgotten by modern culture and replaced by a lot of very complicated music that is difficult to play for a beginner. Beginners often feel like they are not playing “real” music until they are playing something that sounds like what they heard on the radio. 

If that’s what you want to sound like, just remember: most musicians you hear on the radio did not get that way in a year or two. They started when they were 15 or 20...or 10!...and they worked at it for 5 or ten years, and that’s why they sound like that. Then, they added to all that hard work a unique skill set involving a LOT of business and PR skills that have nothing to do with musicianship...and more hard work...and that’s why you hear them on the radio. If your goal is to be rich or famous, you’re probably on the wrong website. If you want music to enrich your daily life and that of those around you, you’ve come to the right place. 

So, here’s the plan: 

If you are going to make music, you will need the full cooperation of your brain. 

So. Next time, we will be discussing, “How the Brain Learns Music” and how understanding that will help you to achieve your musical goals. 

Also coming right up: 


Music Language Basics:

Easy to understand basics of musical language that will demystify all those chords, keys, sharps, flats....We’re going to make sense of it all. You can learn:

  • How to play along on a song you’ve never heard before
  • How to figure out on your own how to play a song
  • How to write your own songs
  • How to transpose to get the song in the right key for your voice 
  • How to find chord shapes that are easier for your fingers (you don’t have to play Eb on the guitar...ever...(unless you want to) )

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References and Further suggested reading: 

Music and Soulmaking by Barbara Crowe

This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin

The Brain The Story of You, by David Eagleman