Stop reading! (And start knowing)

One of my pet peeves is shelling out $20-50 for a method book only to discover that over 90% of the book is completely wasted space, taken up by writing out the exact same exercise twenty times in all possible keys/registers. My filing cabinet is full of books that could be summarized in a page or two. Worse, many of these books are already in the public domain, meaning they are public property and could be available for free (depending on where you live).

If any of you pedagogically-minded trumpeters are bored this summer, I always thought it would be a fun project to make a trumpet “crib sheet” summarizing various books or sections of books (Clarke, Arban, Irons, Colin, Schlossberg, etc.) in as little space as possible.

My problem with the “wall of notes” approach (other than all those poor, dead trees) is the mindset it cultivates. As classical musicians, we are guilty of being mere readers. Beautiful music doesn’t exist on the page, it only exists as it is performed. And performing beautifully means seeing everything on the page, understanding it and internalizing it (or “audiating” it). In other words, we have to take things off the page and stop reading. Or to be precise, we need to go beyond reading.

What could be more boring than staring at pages of the exact same exercise, written out again, and again… and again? Now, in the practice room I’m constantly searching for melodic patterns, harmonies, and little expressive moments – anything to get the exercise or phrase in my ear and my head so I can get off-book as quickly as possible. Not every exercise is going to stay in my memory forever, but I try to avoid staring at a page while I’m actually playing them.

For classical musicians, reading will always be an essential skill. With my students I’m constantly evaluating their visual processing and coming up with exercises and strategies to improve it. However, I think it’s equally important to connect this skill with our ear and with our musicality, and to make sure we understand the music in front of us on a much deeper level than merely reading each note.