What does it mean to "Read Music"?

Lofty title, I know.  Bear with me, as this will be a brief primer of deeper material to come.

I have trouble with the term "reading music", as no one really agrees on what it means.  When a teacher says that they teach their students to "read music", most of the time this translate to "they can look at notation on a staff and identify the letter names, sometimes with accidentals".

I don't consider that reading.  That's like looking at the opening to the constitution and saying "that's a w, and then an e, then there's a space, and a t followed by an h and a e", even being able to say "We the people..." doesn't mean you know what it MEANS.

When I think of "reading" English, I don't think of sounding out and identifying letters, or even of saying words correctly, I think of looking at symbols (writing) and HEARING the words inside your head and KNOWING what those words mean.

To translate to music, this would mean a "reader" can see the symbols (notation) and HEAR what it will sound like (audiate) and understand the MEANING of the sounds (pattern/tonality recognition)

I know, big words, and I'm not defining most of them, did I mention I need you to bear with me?

Music literacy encompasses so much, but at the end of the day I believe the most essential skill is audiation.  When you visualize, you create visual input in your head when it's not present in reality.  When you audiate, you create aural (sound) input in your head when it's not present in reality.

Let's try an experiment to see if you can audiate:

"Sweet Caroline...."

If you heard "BAH BAH BAH" in your head immediately after reading those words, congratulations!  You're audiating!

When I say that my students are learning to "read music" or develop "music literacy", the measurable skill I am referring to is audiation, to ability to create sounds in your head without them being present in the real world.  When they see a sequence of pitches on the staff, they have the tools to decode those and know what they will sound like.  Not what the letter names are, but the actual musical sound, because we are reading music, not letters.

I think knowing letter names is important, and I do cover it as well, but I think 90% of students forget this skill the minute they are out of our classrooms.  What they won't forget (at least not immediately) is the increased skill in ear-training and music reading that result from proper aural training.

Here's the core of it:  We don't have time to teach everything.

If my students can learn only one thing while in chorus, it's going to be how to hear.

The best tool that I've found is handsign solfege, with a movable do

I have never seen letter names help a musician without years of lessons learn how to actually hear and reproduce pitch without an instrument.

More to come, stay tuned!

How to Improve Your Auditions

A parent of my student asked what her daughter can do to start preparing for an A Capella group audition.  Below, inspired by my reply , is a three step plan for improving your audition skills.  It's not easy and it's not quick, but the most effective things rarely are.

Learning to audition is a tricky process, as it is mostly an experiential thing,  You can learn all the technique in the world and practice every day, but when you are in the moment there is the element of stage fright which is so difficult to overcome.

As a professional musician and coach who has trained hundreds of musicians and performed in hundreds of concerts, I still feel that nervousness and anxiety each time in front of an audience.  In my experience, and in the experience of the countless professional musicians, actors, dancers, speakers, and other performers I've asked, it's not that the feeling goes away as you progress.  What happens is we learn to take that feeling and reinterpret it as excitement, passion, or some other positive emotion.  Intellectually, I know that the buzzy feeling I get on stage today is the same one that had me shaking before auditions in high school.  Emotionally, it feels like excitement and anticipation, and it tells me I'm ready to go out and give it my all.

"That's all well and good, but what can I do to get there?"

The first step is to do the audition NOW, don't wait til next year or the next show, just giving it a shot and saying "I won't get in, I won't get the lead, but I'm doing this to get better at auditioning".  Honestly, the only thing that makes you better at auditioning is doing it more often.  I am pretty good at interviews and auditions now because I've done hundreds of them, and I'll still do them even when I don't want the part.  In fact I regularly interview and audition for new choir positions even when I know I don't have the time for them, just for the experience.  When I actually need a position, I bring not only my skill and experience to the table, but the dozens of interviews I've done as well.

Beyond that, daily singing will help to build skill more than anything. Consistent technique work will do so much to improve a singer. You can download a free CD of vocal warmups and exercises from my website.  What you can improve which will very much impress judges is ear training - the ability to sing in tune, pick up a part quickly, and read music. This comes first from a large amount of listening and singing.

After the listening/singing foundation has been laid, musicians need a systematic way to approach deciphering the language of music.  I've written on this before, and will again in the future, for now you must know that the scientific literature states that all systems of ear training (fixed/movable solfege, numbers, letter names, intervals) work about equally well, the differentiator is the instructor's mastery of the method and teaching ability, the amount of time students devote to practice, and the outside work of the students. Pick a system and stick with it, get a coach, or buy an audio/book program.

In the broader scheme, stage fright is stage fright, and working on it in any context will help to improve in auditions.  So public speaking, running for office in a club, reading a passage at church,auditioning for anything and everything that comes up, performing in front of family and friends, trying out for a sports team, doing announcements over the intercom, giving a speech in class, etc.

Getting over the fear of being judged by others and feeling totally comfortable standing up and showing your stuff in a relaxed way is incredibly difficult and takes a lifetime to master, best bet is to get started now and just practice it in the real world whenever you have the opportunity.

Action Step: Google auditions in your area for your artform, pick 3 that fit in your schedule (even if they are way out of your league or genre) and put them in the calendar today.  Good luck, though if you audition enough, you won't need it.

Why Many Professional Musicians Discount Solfege

"All those weird words just get in the way, just look at the notes and sing them!"

It is very common in discussions of ear training and music teaching to find professional musicians who feel that all forms of sight singing training relying a syllables (solfege, numbers, letter names, etc.) is a waste of time or even detrimental.

There is a reason for this.

When you have spent your whole life speaking only one language, say English, and then try to learn another language, say French, you go through three steps for each new word or phrase:

1) Hear/See the French word

2) Translate it to the English word

3) Discern the meaning

For example:

You see the word "chat"

You translate that (in your head) to "cat"

You see the image of a cat in your head

Mastery of language doesn't come until you can see/hear "chat" and immediately see the image of a feline in your head WITHOUT the intermediary step of thinking the English word "cat"

There are many philosophies of language education, and of music education as well.  Many language teachers agree that it is helpful for some students to learn how to translate the foreign language into their native tongue.

This is where solfege (or any sight reading method) comes in:

You see the note

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You hear the pitch in your head


You hear the pitch

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You see the notation in your head

The problem is that many professional musicians learned music without an intermediary step (Like learning French without knowing English) so the process of translating makes no sense to them, and seems like an unnecessary extra step.

If you can see a pitch and immediately hear it in your head, or hear a pitch and immediately know what the notation is, then these systems weren't created for you.

They are for those of us who grew up without the language of music, and could use some assistance translating it. Want a free lesson in solfege and music reading?  If you live in the Boston area you can come to my studio, and if you don't, I do online lessons around the world via Skype, the first lesson is always free!  Let me know in the comments, or check out

Solfege Hand Signs

I've noticed a lot of hits on my blog coming from people searching the term "Solfege Hand Signs" or "Kodaly Hand Signs" so I thought 'why not make a post specifically about it?' Before I spent the last two summers in Kodaly training at the New England Conservatory I spent 2 years teaching myself movable solfege.  There were not any teachers at my school who specialized in this method and certainly none that advocated handsigns, so I was on my own.  I got every book I could and watched youtube videos and scoured the internet to find all the help I could get, and after two years of hard work, became rather proficient in both movable do solfege and handsigns.

Movable do solfege focuses on the tonal relationships between pitches, assigning a syllable (do re mi fa so la ti do) to each pitch based on its location within a particular key and relation to the tonal center.

In a similar fashion, the handsigns give a physical and spacial representation to the pitch based on its location and relation to the tonal center.  The syllables and handsigns do not correspond to absolute pitch names (C D E F G etc) but rather to scale degrees (the 1 2 3 etc of a key).  Each syllable has a specific handsign that relates to it and the height of each handsign helps to show the direction of movement.  Do is located at the belt-buckle, so is located around the chin/mouth, and high do is located around the forehead.  Below is a wonderful site where you can find a chart showing all of the handsigns

I hope this has been of some help to those of you who show up here, thanks for visiting!