I Couldn’t Read The Music

Originally published in 1883, it rocked my world in 1964 when I got it as my first piece of sheet music.

I snatched it down. 

I’d spied it right away. SHEET MUSIC! My very first piece of music was poking its head out of my Christmas stocking. 

The Spinning Song. It was the sheet music for THE Spinning Song.  Like the Golden Gate Bridge or my mother. It had always been.

My big sister had already taught me the first section but I was blissfully unaware of the rest of the piece.

Suddenly, I could see there was a lot more to it, but it was a complete mystery. You see, I couldn’t read music. I was the youngest kid in a musical family and I had perfect pitch. (My Dad, a Lutheran pastor, probably did too, given his ability to pull notes out of thin air in order to sing the liturgy on Sunday mornings.) My neighborhood piano teacher hadn’t noticed that I couldn’t read music. (Coincidentally, she also never observed that I couldn’t read her messy cursive handwriting. To this day I have no idea what she was writing in my assignment book week-after-week.) By the time I was ten-years-old I was playing the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto with my sister. Never mind that I didn’t know what a concerto was or that one part was really for orchestra.  I kept playing my sister’s part because I played whatever I’d heard. It didn’t occur to anyone that I wasn’t able to read the score. As an adult after performing it with an orchestra I marveled even more at the stupidity of giving the orchestral part for that virtuosic piece to a clueless little kid.

I finally did learn to read music playing the flute in Junior High Band – along with everyone else who wasn’t playing the Bach C Major Two-Part Invention by ear. (The first of many pieces I  thought I’d written. “Hey Mom! Listen to this piece I made up!” Turns out my sister had been practicing it right into my head. When I was going to Juilliard, I was an au pair for a family with two kids, ages 8 and 11. One evening I was improvising on their piano, sure I’d just written a fabulous new pop song. The older one came down the stairs into the living room. “Hey, I didn’t know you could play the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show!”) 

I remember learning the names of the lines and spaces (How come all the sentences involved boys getting fudge?) I remember learning that the sharps and flats had an order to them. (Really? If you just memorize FCGDAEB, they always show up in the same order? And the flat order is just the sharp order backwards? That’s too easy!)

By middle school my family had moved to Seattle and I had a wonderful new piano teacher, Michiko Morita Miyamoto, whose name we lovingly shortened to Mrs. M. She taught me how to play beautifully – how to care about each note I played. Somewhere along the way her teaching collided with the band teacher’s and I could suddenly read music. Whew.

Ironically, I’ve ended up being a great sight-reader. It’s a good thing, because otherwise I would never have been able to learn so much music so quickly. I love to read music.

I focus on reading in my teaching. I don’t want any of my students to get the sheet music to a piece they’re dying to play and not be able to decipher it. That’s why I’ve created my Sight Reading Flashcards.

To all the school music teachers who teach the basics, thank you. Without you I would probably still be trying to play the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto by ear.

I still remember exactly what that felt like to look at the Spinning Song and have no idea what all those tiny black squiggles meant.

Now it’s my job to make sure it doesn’t happen again.