Have you ever been introduced to someone, immediately forgotten their name, got to know them really quite well and then left it far too late to be able to ask without offending them? I once knew a fellow parent for months and had some fairly personal conversations with her, all the time not having a clue what her name was. I just kept hoping it would come up in conversation somehow and dreading the time when I had to introduce her to someone else.
It has, for me, been a bit the same with learning to read music. I was taught how to read music as a child but soon afterwards mislaid the knowledge and then, suddenly, it was too late to admit it. I worked my way through the grades learning the pieces mostly by ear, became head of my school orchestra and lived in fear of the music director saying in early rehearsals: “could you just play that bar for us?” By the time I joined an orchestra at university, it was getting really rather awkward and that, combined with general laziness and the distraction of suddenly becoming ‘an adult’, signalled the end of my playing for a few years.
Just to clarify, I’m not completely musically illiterate, show me a note on the stave and I can, for the most part, find it on the viola. But sometimes there’s a bit of time delay, and I might well not be able to tell you the name of the note. So, when the conductor says, “violas, play me that E”, I do so very quietly and tentatively in case I’ve got the wrong one. It’s a rather embarrassing admission to be quite honest.
Why, you are probably thinking, do I not just learn to read music properly? That would of course have been the sensible thing to do. And I’m now, finally, doing what I said I’d do at the start of all this and going back to the very beginning. There are tonnes of fantastic music theory websites out there but it turns out I don’t have the self-discipline to use them methodically so I’ve gone old-school and bought myself an idiot-proof music theory work book, starting at grade one. Maybe this time next year I’ll be able to play that E with a bit more confidence.