There are worse musicians to emulate than Irving Berlin. He penned God Bless America, and the perennial classic White Christmas along with a whole host of other popular songs. Any songwriter would relish the royalties of either of these tunes. Berlin knew the value of work. He didn’t believe in inspiration, but in effort. He wrote a song a day, regardless of fickle “inspiration.” The wonderful thing is that all of these musical accomplishments weren’t hampered by Berlin’s inability to read or write music. In fact, later in life, Berlin was convinced this inability was one of the factors in his success. He wasn’t limited by written music.
Reading and writing music is NOT necessary to be a good musician. Just ask Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews, or a boatload of other musicians worldwide. Some think the rules and regulations of written music can interfere with creativity. The Pres, Lester Young, a giant of jazz who played a sweet tenor sax didn’t want to know the changes to songs he was improvising over because it limited him. He’d rather use his ears. This is great advice. Don’t let an inability (or lack of interest) in reading music discourage you from playing music. They’re different things!
Still, reading music is a great skill that can unlock vast horizons of other music for you to play. For me, if I didn’t know how to read and write music, I wouldn’t be playing today, but I wish I’d relied more on my ears in the past. Now I’m trying to make up for my over-reliance on written music by learning songs and improvised solos by ear, and by playing with others without written music whenever possible. Whichever path you choose, the important part is to play your instrument. If there is sheet music in front of you, great! If you’re simply trying to figure it out by ear, great! If you’re trying to do both? Great!
Have fun, and good luck with your practice.
Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.
Lester Young and friends (Ella Fitzgerald singing, Buddy Rich on drums, Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, and other jazz greats. Fantastic improvising!)
And here’s Carlos Santana (w/ Rob Thomas):
And here’s Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds: