Tonight at the dinner table, somehow my kids and I got onto the topic of musical notation. We all agreed that none of us could remember a time when we couldn’t read music. I’m pretty sure I learned to read music before I learned to read words. If not, it sure seems that way. I spent hours and hours as a kid, playing the piano, playing band instruments, and singing. My kids are teenagers now, but they learned how to read music when they were very young in elementary school. Both are active now in high school and college instrumental music programs, and both are avid lovers of music of all styles. My husband would say the same thing, having played trumpet his whole life. Music, and in particular reading music, has been part of all of our lives “forever”.
It was a bit disconcerting this evening, then, when my daughter tried to teach me how to play a song on her ukulele. Yep, she plays ukulele. Quite well, actually. (She also plays electric and acoustic guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano, and has in the past played flute and violin. I’m so jealous! Oh, and she’s saving up to buy a drum kit. Heaven help us!)
Anyhoo, I had a notion to learn to play the ukulele. Willing and eager to teach me, she wrote out a short song using a new (to me) kind of notation – the “chord chart”. This is a pictorial representation of the frets of the ukulele, with lines to represent strings and dots to represent where your fingers go on the strings. I tell you, it was one of the most frustrating experiences, to not be able to quickly read that notation and make my fingers do what the notation said! I knew the song, I knew the chords I was supposed to be playing, I could even hear them in my head! But to turn those charts into music by way of my brain telling my fingers what to do – it just wasn’t happening!
To even further complicate matters, she showed me “tablature” notation. This is a character-based representation of the strings and the frets – very difficult to describe actually – and even more difficult to decode. All of a sudden, in the middle of my short ukulele lesson, and for the first time that I can ever remember, I felt like music was out of reach for me. I just couldn’t crack the code. It was so frustrating!
But there was my daughter, easily moving back and forth between “regular” notation, chord charts, and tablature. She can look at any of the three and instantly know what she’s seeing, and more importantly, make her fingers do the right thing on the instrument that she’s playing at that moment. It is truly amazing.
After walking away from the experience and giving myself a little space, I realize that it’s all a matter of practice and repetition. I am fluent in regular musical notation because I spent thousands of hours in my lifetime reading music for various reasons. If I were to put the time in with the chord charts and the tablature notation, I think I might be able to learn them too.
But I also think there is one more ingredient that is necessary – and that is the spark of desire. My daughter taught herself to read these notation styles because she wanted more than anything to play the guitar and the uke. She has put a lot of time into each instrument, and has the calloused fingertips to show it. And because she was driven and interested, she is now fluent in all three notational languages.
What’s the message of this story? Maybe it’s that I’m not meant to play the ukulele. Maybe it’s that I’m in awe of my daughter and her gifts. Maybe I’m just rambling (ok, yes, that’s true!). No, it’s that I realize I’m blessed to be living a musical life, and that I’m thankful for the tools which have allowed me to do that. I’m glad that music has been the language of my life.