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.


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