Learning NOT to read Music: A classical “note reader’s” voyage into the art of improvisation

Sep 30, 2009

This idea sprung to me as I was thinking about this past weekend’s concerto performances. I performed these from memory, or by heart, and why was it that I as a professional clarinetist, at the top of my game, thought this was a slightly stressful, albeit enjoyable endeavor specifically because I had no notes in front of me. My entire life I’ve been thinking about this, but a few recent experiences have set me onto this journey of curiosity that I plan to share with you.

I read an article this morning about Barbara Streisand one of the arguably greatest singers/performers/musicians of our time and one of the things it mentions is that she does not know how to read notes.


I thought this was a wonderful article that gave a glimpse into the natural aspect of her talent. When I read the article I was left with the sense that there is not much that is technical about how she sings but there is a lot that is natural or improvised. This is not to imply that she doesn’t have a ton of technical ability, but that she uses her voice naturally. This article also mentions that other amazing musicians of our time, i.e. Pavarotti, also did not have the standard note reading prowess that so many of us cherish and increasingly depend on. It is not a coincidence that so many singers learn to sing this way as it is similar to learning a language as a child. I also learned to play music, but as a child learns to read, not how one learns to speak. In other words, speaking is similar to improvising and reading is similar to playing the notes.

I recently discussed improvising with a pianist/composer colleague of mine, Noam Sivan.  I ran into Noam on Amtrak while he was traveling to The Curtis Institute of Music to teach a class on improvisation. I was on my way to Peabody to teach students how to play notes better and express these notes beautifully. I thought this was such a revelation. I went to Curtis, and I learned to read notes better and express them beautifully through my instrument and he was teaching current students how not to read notes. This is wonderful!

Why do I generally only read notes and how can I be an established professional musician and not NOT read notes. Understand that I memorize well through a combination of listening, repetition and sweat but there are many moments when I listen to a jazz concert, or to great pop or rock singers that I am overwhelmed with respect, admiration and plain old jealousy!  How can I do more of that I ask myself? Or, could I ever do that?  By asking myself this question over the years I have come to a pretty simple conclusion, it is hard to NOT read notes when your principal job is to read the notes very well.

Another event that inspired this journey was a recent discussion with my girlfriend about her early years learning the violin. She is training to get certified in Suzuki teaching and she grew up with it in her home.  Her mom is a Suzuki teacher and she studied with Suzuki teachers her whole life. We also discussed the specific techniques for this method. Being a clarinet player I had a small grasp of what it was about but there was much I didn’t know.  She is surprised that I am as curious to know about the Suzuki method as a four year old is about learning to play music for the very first time. She is also very surprised when I tell her I learned to play with a page of music and a fingering chart in front of me. Why was I so curious about how different people learn music after all these years of getting good a reading and do I know of very many classically trained wind players or others who also learned “by ear”?

In the interest of full disclosure, when asked after a concert by lovely concertgoers the most common question posed to a young, talented, energetic, (handsome) J classical clarinet playing black man, “So… I really must know”…smile…pause…grin… “do you play jazz?” I have and will continue to answer in a half joking half serious manner that, “Actually, I like to improvise a bit but I wouldn’t really call myself a jazzer.” I know, not a real answer, but coming out directly and saying, “Well, to be honest, I’ve spent my entire life learning to read notes really well so the unfortunate un-cool answer is, no” is exactly that, un-cool.

Now that you’ve read this far I suppose you won’t mind if I keep going and tell you another long story explaining this whole NOT how to do something thing.   If you do mind then maybe your computer will crash and all evidence of this post will disappear along with all of your tax records and other important documents from the last 10 years. * Better keep reading in other words.

The last event that inspired me was a recent gig with friends at a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The group was put together by a very creative musician and cello colleague at the Met, Jeremy Turner and included Met cellist Joel Noyes, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri (currently playing with Sufjan Stevens), Awesome Abe Seiferth a guitarist with the band Phonograph and our latest addition, a fabulous drummer named Colin Brooks. Jeremy wrote the music for the gig but it wasn’t the gig itself that required a ton of improvisation but the experience felt very much like improvisation. After the gig I heard a trio of musicians playing an unbelievable set. The group was called Tin Pan Alley and they were the resident band at Pete’s Candy Store a small, cool club/bar in Williamsburg.  They played wonderfully. Awesome passion, energy, style and, of course no notes!

We ended up hanging with these guys in Jeremy’s backyard, talking about music, expression and lo and behold, improvisation. I told them of my intense admiration of improvisers and Clifton Hyde told me about his love of opera and all things classical. One thing led to another and at one in the morning I busted out my clarinet and played one of the tunes I love to play, Summertime. There was a guitar  being played and Jeremy in the background politely trying to quiet us because it was so late! This one or two minute session was so exciting for me, and no, it wasn’t because I had a couple beers! I felt that I desperately needed to start getting together with friends and playing music. Not reading music.

Clifton and the group have since invited me to play with them in Central Park and after I join them I’ll definitely write about that and talk to them about their improvisatory skills. One last point to mention is that the clarinetist that night, Stefan, who was not at the after party, had recently picked up the clarinet but was doing things that sounded like he had been playing the instrument his whole life.

So, my friends, here we are. I am hereby un-cool and curious and you, curious and possibly un-cool as well. Over the next few months, years, lifetimes I will reach out to people of various instruments, backgrounds and genres sit down with them and play, discuss, listen to what they have to say and play about playing by heart. If there is a how, I want to know how to do it better. If there isn’t a how, I want to know how to do that as well. Let’s get to it, NOT reading, that is.  In the next installment I will tell you about my first NOT reading mentor. In the meantime, please send me your suggestions for whom I should sit down and “jam” with.

* In the unlikely event that these things happen, you not reading further and the other stuff, Anthony McGill shall not be held responsible for any of the damages listed above.


22 Responses to Learning NOT to read Music: A classical “note reader’s” voyage into the art of improvisation

  1. Booker T September 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Go for it! Great music is Great music whether improvised or played from written notes. Sounds like a very interesting journey to me!

  2. Matthew Gunderson October 1, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Wow, this is very interesting. I’ve always wanted to be a “jazzer” but was always too busy learning the classical stuff that I never got around to it. I’m surrounded by awesome jazzers, so I should definitely hang out with them more and learn from them.
    Great blog…awesome ideas!

  3. Jeniva, from Missouri October 1, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I just wanted to tell you it was very cool performing with you Tuesday evening. Our little symphony is what it is, an effort to give adults and high school kids the opportunity to play and perform. It lacks much, but we love it fiercely. The orchestra and community were quite taken by your performance. Me, too. So thank you.
    And as for improvisation, it feels to me that it requires audacity as well as talent. We music-readers are so trained to rely on written notes that it’s kind of scary to just…play. Just let go. Or that’s my experience, anyway. Audacity.

    • Anthony October 2, 2009 at 11:50 am

      I agree completely. It was one of the nice parts of the weekend playing the piece with you as well. Other things hmmm….but playing with you was a highlight. Take care and have a good year.

      All the best,

  4. Frederick Nichelson October 2, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Anthony, this is very refreshing to hear from such an accomplished player. I play mostly jazz and sould music but always long to sight read better. We all know that being able to read only enhances our music and ability to work more gigs. Many jazz players resort to their ears and memorizing chord changes. I often notice how classical players sound so unbelieveable when then appear to play from memory and have greater expression. It’s funny how the listener just wants to be pleased. They really don’t know or care that one can read. This topic is very perplexing. I am a former sax player and always lagged behind in college cause of weak reading. I eventually landed on my secong instrument, bass, and have felt at home every since. Glad to see your blog. We need to stay in touch.

    • Anthony October 2, 2009 at 11:53 am

      Thanks Fred,

      We definitely need to stay in touch. I always enjoy listening to your recordings.

      Take care,


  5. dennis low October 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Love your journey and your playing! Try jamming with a blues band, since it will give you a comfortable 12 bar structure so that you may explore the cosmos within that form. Make sure the band has a good blues harp player to give you the “feel.”
    Continued good journey with notes and heart. LowD

    • Anthony October 5, 2009 at 10:18 am

      NICE. Sounds good to me. BTW it was pretty cool, the other day I saw Robin Williams playing a harmonica with the Jay Leno Show band. It seemed like he was rocking out.


  6. Amateur Neuroscientist October 4, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Speaking/thinking loosely, I wonder if there is something neurological to the read vs not, and beyond music but into language and left vs right brain, etc. that fits with your experience. Strengthening the reading “circuits” may create a deficit in other neurological circuits, I think. The oral story tellers in India who could recite from memory days of ancient oral novels did not know how to read and lost that ability once they did learn to read. Just wondering.

    • Anthony October 5, 2009 at 10:16 am

      Interesting idea for certain. I think that you may be on to something. I would like to think that the because the brain has the potential to change even as we age, one can build new pathways for expression. So basically if I work to build and strengthen those new pathways and circuits my hope is that my fingers and ears will catch on. I think it may not be as difficult as learning to play the violin for the first time as an adult for instance. Also there is a technical resource that I can tap into as well. Thanks for the interesting discussion A. N.

  7. Ellen October 9, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    As a classically trained musician, I too, had and have a strong desire to improvise but have always felt too insecure to let go!
    We have devoted to many years to achieving the most beautiful sound from the written note, and therefore have not developed our improvisational ears! It’s time to free up and listen without the crutch of the written note – to develop another fabulous skill. I remember being at a lesson, trying to improvise and create a long and elaborate phrase. I learned to believe at that moment that LESS IS MORE in improvisation too.
    Great Blog.
    Thank you.

  8. Torin Bakke October 22, 2009 at 6:46 am

    I took suzuki viola from the time I was 5 until I was 9. I learned by ear, and it was really difficult to learn notes once I joined a youth orchestra.

    When I switched to clarinet when I was 10, I only learned by note-reading. Learning through note-reading was a lot slower at first, but my ears helped with the note reading. They also slowed me down, because I wanted it to sound one way, and sometimes the notes led me another direction.


  9. David Thomas October 24, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Hey Anthony,

    It takes some courage to write about this. I, too, am discovering that I have somehow missed, without knowing it, improvising. I have just begin to play around with some of the many “jazz minus one” series of Jamey Aebersold. And it feels GREAT. I hope you continue to explore this, even if secretly, because it can be a wonderful “escape” for us square, classical “by the book” note players.

    Best Wishes,
    David Thomas
    Columbus Symphony Orchestra (Ohio)

  10. Carolanne November 6, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    A.N. raises an interesting theory. I home schooled my 3 children (still working with the youngest.) My son is 15 and has highly-functioning autism. To hear him play the piano is a thrill; to watch him is profound, as he looks as though he’s been playing for absolute years! He is self-taught, and as such he doesn’t really read notes, time sigs, etc.; at least not in the manner my daughter learned. She’s 18 and is a music-reader. Now, I my opinion, she has MORE freedom due to the discipline of note-reading AND the ability to “improvise;” I would make her notate any improvisations she wanted to add to the piece. She (a clarinetist and pianist) can play anything you place before her, whereas my son must listen over and over to a piece before he can play it perfectly. I think my daughter improvises by “seeing the notes in her head” and—totally familiar with the pitch—she plays these improvisations or ad libs.
    This is to say that I wouldn’t look for an easy way out. I am not familiar enough with (haven’t tried) the Suzuki Method to have a knowledgeable opinion; however, I’d take the long road AND script my improvs, at least until I felt secure. That way you retain the strong ability to read and add another discipline to it: COMPOSITION. Just because something seems “natural” shouldn’t make one envious. I always think of Aretha Franklin. She grew up around music in her home and church (exposure) and had lessons from the church pianist (some technical ability). Her seeming improvisations are actually studied in the sense that she uses her repertoire of hundreds of improvisational riffs as she sings. Sarah Vaughan, same thing. If you are familiar with their music, you know what they are going to do next, how they are going to bend a note, etc. As with Luciano; I can sing a cadenza along with him, from a piece I’ve not heard him sing before, and get it right 99% of the time because I know his style. I know Mirella’s style, Sills, etc. I am a learned-by-ear lyric coloratura, and when I first heard that Luciano didn’t read music, I decided I NEEDED TO LEARN. I mean, he was one of the best and his background was steeped in music, he had other strong, technically- sound abilities, but I believe that if he had been able to read music we would have heard a much larger repertoire from this great man. (I also think Maestro Levine was frustrated about Luciano’s lack of note reading ability.) In conclusion (finally!), Mr. McGill, I think you should ask your girlfriend if anything I said here applies to what she’s learned, and if you haven’t heard Wynton Marsalis on the subject of improvisation… You’re in the same bldg. aren’t you? Run upstairs and have a chat with him. You’ll be surprised; I think he would agree with me.

    • Anthony November 16, 2009 at 8:51 pm

      Not too long at all Carolanne. I’ve been swamped with moving and playing so haven’t been to the site at all recently. Thank you for your thoughts!

  11. Clifton Hyde November 17, 2009 at 8:45 am


    Great reading this. It was a great night in Williamsburg & I’m looking forward to getting you and Stefan playing together.

    I’m inspired to write about my opposite path: learning by ear at age 5 & teaching myself to read music in college!

    Until then,

    -c l i f t o n

  12. Stefan November 17, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Well…. so much of classical music originated in improvisations, and since it was before the time or recording devises, the only way to archive the music of such master improvisors as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc. was to write it down. There’s a mysterious gray line between a great improvisor and a great note reader, and both are able to create beautiful music.
    Really, at the end of the day, the listener doesn’t care, and it’s up to the performer to make great music. The main difference, as Carolanne mentioned, is that improvisors also utilize composition. But performance is about magic and make-believe, and a great performer makes another’s composition theirs while they are on stage, so it really doesn’t matter anyway.
    I would love to jam with you sometime! Let me know, we could play some improvised duets! email me. and also be sure to come out and sit in with Tin Pan sometime, we’d love to play with you.

    • Anthony November 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm

      Stefan this is great. I think that having these conversations is the key to growing constantly as a musician. If we stop discovering we stop changing. If we stop changing we are stagnant as people and musicians. You’re right about both being able to create beautiful music and that is the very important thing. I want just to do more music making in general and expand the depth. Will email you soon.

  13. Emily Mingjing Huang November 21, 2009 at 5:44 am

    This is video is a deaf percussionist talking about how to “listen” to music and how to experiment new methods of playing.


    I think listening and experimenting is are relevant to your problem of reading the music to hard and perhaps feel distant from the actual music in the score.

    Let me know what you think 🙂


    • Anthony November 25, 2009 at 7:46 pm

      Thank you for this Emily. I think that the video is wonderful. I think that it is not reading the music that is a problem nor interpreting it because as she says in the video, this is a fluid thing. I think what I learn from the video is that you can produce and create your own sounds and experience by listening. This is very important because she explains you can listen with your body and feet and everything. This is very interesting. I will explore doing what I do when I play written music to what I do without music. Experiment. Experience. These are the reasons that I am doing more things that are free. It will not only improve my improvising skills but my reading and learning of new music as well. I love when she says I need the reason. The reason is to say something through music. I love this and completely agree. Thank you.

  14. Noam Sivan December 25, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Little did I foresee the consequences of our casual train conversation a few months ago! Anthony, this article and your journey are truly remarkable. I appreciate your attitude very much. Not many people would take this risk: with your ability to play so beautifully, with years of reading notes and developing technical security, with your already very busy performing schedule in the world of written music – to venture into the unknown takes real courage. But discovering one’s own creativity does add another dimension to being a musician that cannot be attained otherwise, and I’m very glad that you decided to go in that path. I’d be happy to improvise with you any time, let’s just do it some time soon and see how it goes. And by the way, the Curtis students who had just “learned not to read notes” did wonderful things on stage during their first-ever improvisation concert last week. Classical musicians have much more creative energy inside them than the world commonly allows them to express. Once given a chance, they can change that world.

  15. James February 3, 2010 at 6:17 am

    As waves of sound
    Creating tides bound
    Splashing against your mind
    Memories of time
    Vibrations unfold
    Of stories untold
    Imagination radiating
    Since of experience accelerating
    There is a constant throb of sound
    Were a message can be found
    Listen closely and you may hear
    All dimensions of your life-
    Very clear……..


    Thanks Anthony for the wonderful music you give to the WORLD!!!



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