Reading Music when You Play the Fiddle
In traditional violin pedagogy reading music is taught right along with learning to play the violin. Books like Tune a Day, String Builder, and All for Strings show the open strings on the music staff first. They have the student play these open strings while looking at the chart for when to change from one string to another and for how many times to play each note.
When I began teaching fiddle I chose to avoid the difficulties inherent in teaching two difficult concepts at the same time. Instead I adopted the fiddle tablature, (fiddle tab), concept from Andy Kaufmann’s Beginning Old Time Fiddle. My big change on that method of tab notation was to allow the basic four note scale from the open string determine the default correlation between finger numbers and finger placement.
I do teach music reading. It just comes a bit later, after the student has learned to play almost to the intermediate level. For that purpose I like to use the Suzuki book along with my Suzuki tabs. I used to use Beginning Old Time Fiddle, because it had both tab and music notation together. Maybe I changed because so many students already had the Suzuki book.
I let the student get started with the Suzuki pieces in tab format. Then, put both on the stand and play first the tab, then the music notation. before long they are not needing the tab very much. And by the time they are at the end of book one, they are reading music notation.
Thinking Out the Music Reading Skill
I also coach them in how to think about music reading. My hit is this: we need to be able to see the note head, the dot on the staff, and immediately translate that to a certain finger playing a certain string. There is no decoding the note to what its name is first. That’s not how music reading works. You see the note, you play the note. No delay. It’s immediate.
Back when I was engaged in playing music theater, one of the music directors commented that I “read like a shot.” And yet, I don’t think of myself as an especially good reader. But, even average music readers do well when presented with new music charts. It’s expected of professionals.
As you improve your note reading skill on your instrument you begin to read patterns in addition to notes. You see a scale-like passage in a chart, and before you even begin playing it, your subconscious is laying out the order of fingering as a whole. Other patterns also become familiar enough to be taken as a whole, not one note at a time.
Decoding the Music Notation Metaphor
Tablature tells you what string to play and which finger to use. The rhythm aspect is similar to music notation, with stems and beams connecting finger numbers, just like music notation connects note heads. The note heads tell you the pitch to play. They don’t tell you how to play it.
Tablature makes an analog between the neck of the violin and the tab staff. If you rested the violin on its right side on a table, you would see the E string is highest in spatial dimension, just as it is on the tab staff. This is intuitive and not a difficult translation.
In music notation the spatial relationship of the notes is analogous to sound, not physical structure. A not that is higher than another note in the musical staff has a higher pitch. We are really into a strong metaphor with this comparison. But it does work.
And while it may be intuitive for long time music readers, it is not intuitive for beginners. I often talk about the relationship of the higher note making a higher pitch. And also talk about how if the note is close on the staff, then the finger playing it will be close also. I believe this helps beginners get their heads around a difficult concept.
Having taught a very long time now, I’m not sure I would go the way I have with tab for violin students. Fiddle, yes. Violin? The caution about teaching two difficult subjects at the same time still holds, but there is a simplicity to the traditional pedagogical approach.
Suzuki has a third concept. Teach the student by ear. First they hear the tune many times. I don’t know if Suzuki encourages students to sing their pieces. (Probably not.) But the listening prepares the student to be taught by demonstration. And I might add, that my impression from talking with American Suzuki instructors is that they get into the music notation early.
The listen, sing, play school of learning comes from the Mike Block String Camp. I have seen how effective it is. I found my students were a little resistant to this method, having gotten totally used to tab charts.
With the widespread use of the smart phone, many students record sound or video when I show them a new tune. This facilitates the ear learning method. It’s really a new game with this tool.