There’s just one problem: I don’t want to read the notes

Guest post by Dr Michael Low

I have a confession: I don’t like to engage in online debates. The thought of someone meticulously sharpening their proverbial pitch-fork in response to my opinion is almost as terrifying as anticipating the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, where the psychotic Jack broke through the bathroom to find the terrified Wendy, before shouting the ominous cinematic caption: ‘Here’s Johnny!’ I am also not the biggest fan of text messages and emails, as they can be open to misunderstanding due to the recipient’s frame of mind and emotional state. Or perhaps I am not a fan of all these because I am just a voyeur, which would possibly explain why I have always have an affinity for Schubert’s Winterreise and an undying love for the movie theatre. 

Having read the Charlotte Gill’s original article on music education and the responses that it generated, part of me was tempted not to say anything; what difference would my opinion make? I do, after all, live in a country which has recently been downgraded to ‘junk’ status (the result of the South African president’s catastrophic cabinet reshuffle). Sweeping statement perhaps, but there has always been a difference in the reception of the opinions of someone who works in a first-world country and those of someone who works in Africa; for all its breath-taking scenery, somehow being a music educator in Cape Town doesn’t carry as much gravitas as being one in Europe. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I probably practise the piano inside a straw hut, while predators such as lions and leopards huff and puff outside my front door, regardless of my credentials.

I have no idea in what context Gill’s article was written. However, in my opinion it is important to keep in mind that she was (unconsciously) addressing two things: the first was music education being ‘elitist’ due to the technical hindrance caused by music notation:


This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.


The second was music as a hobby. (It must be said that Gill was not explicit in her description of music as a recreational activity, but it is implied in her statement):


‘I play the piano through reading letters alone (D/F#, for example), churning out chords as if it were a guitar. In the US I have seen children pick up songs through tablature alone. Sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef, but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.’


I will address the second point before the first.

Despite being a musical snob, I do believe that there is a place for playing your favourite music without the use of traditional music notation, YouTube features countless pop songs and soundtrack tutorials, some of which are excellent to assist those who are looking for a more straight-forward way of accessing their favourite piece of music. However, just as there are those who aspire only to play their favourite songs, there are also a handful of us who seek to study and perform music at a higher level (by this I mean a more formal music education such as obtaining a degree or studying towards a Conservatoire-type performance diploma). In our studies, we seek to understand the aesthetic value behind a Beethoven sonata or a Rachmaninov concerto. Music is no longer a mere ‘hobby,’ but a significant part of our life: we live it, breathe it, sleep with it and it haunts us in our dreams. The repertoire that interest us are not Adele songs or Richard Clayderman type piano ballades but Schubert sonatas, Brahms concerti, Chopin preludes, etc, and the most straightforward way of accessing these works is through music notation, as it is the primary source of the composer’s musical intention. Similarly, any academic in tertiary level will always look to reference a primary source during research, it is only when this is not possible that a secondary source is quoted. Here is another analogy: reciting and performing Shakespeare through imitation is not nearly the same as actually taking time to study and understand the poet’s original writing. I personally have no interest in studying or performing Shakespeare, I learn to read purely so that I can enjoy reading sports journalism, online articles and browsing the web. At the same time, I do not think I have the right (or audacity) to be critical of the language that the poet used just because I cannot relate to it.

As human beings, being a specialist or expert in one’s chosen field does not make us better than our amateur counterparts, but it does – in some cases – make us much more obsessive. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that there will always be a place for everyone, and just as an enthusiastic hacker of the golf ball will probably never reach the dizzy height of a touring golf professional, this has not stop me from enjoying the game, and in the process, attaining a sense of satisfaction every time I hit a good shot.

I do not think music notation is difficult to understand, yet at the same time I do not think it is easy either, and just like everything else in life that is worth doing, comprehension of music notation requires effort and, more importantly, time, but unfortunately this is where things begins to go awry with the current generation of music students. This is an issue I will address below.

I agree with Gill’s argument that auditory perception and other skills can be as important as notation. I, for one, see shapes and patterns on the piano when it comes to memorising a piece of music. I have had the experience of teaching a small handful of students who, despite their enormous desire to play the piano, find it very difficult to tell the difference between a note written on a line of the stave and a note written in a space. The situation literally got out of out of hand (no pun intended!) when we moved on to playing hands together. In these cases I agree that a methodology outside music notation may work very well in order to enhance the student’s enjoyment of music. However, it is also my experience that a number of students cannot read music notation not because they do not have the ability to do so but simply because they chose not to. This is in consistent with the age of social media that reward narcissistic selfies and instantaneous gratification; as soon as something gets remotely difficult, you either give up or try something else. I have been asked by one of my students, ‘Dr Low, why do I need to learn how to read the notes? You can just show me where everything goes, it would save both of us a lot of time.’ To which I answered, ‘In that case you don’t need me as your teacher, you need YouTube.’ Perhaps I am ‘too understanding’ (to borrow the words of a generous parent), but I can sympathise with the initial struggle of learning music notation. However, just like learning a new language or a new skill, the more you familiarise yourself with it, the easier it becomes. I also suspect that the unwillingness of certain students to read music notation has much to do with the physical make-up of the piano, as it is one of the few instruments that allow the student to be taught by rote. And although YouTube tutorial clips have their place in enhancing and assisting a music enthusiast, it can also have a converse effect. I have seen a number of my technically savvy (and at the same time immensely musical) students and friends doing themselves a huge disservice by underestimating the importance of music notation. Excuses include ‘It just takes too long’ or ‘I don’t have the time’, along with ‘I just want to play music for fun, not properly’.

In response to Gill’s statement about still not being able to sight-read, I too must confess that I was an exceptionally poor sight-reader throughout my University years – which was papered over by my obsessive practice routine. It was only later in life that I realised that one doesn’t study Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata by just practising the Hammerklavier, but also by studying the rest of Beethoven’s piano output. However, this does mean that (despite my ability to perform repertoire such as the Brahms F-minor Sonata, Liszt transcriptions and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto) I have never featured prominently in the music department’s performance calendar. I guess there are only so many times when you can say to your fellow colleagues, ‘Send me the music beforehand’. The situation reached its all-time low (again, no pun intended!) during the first year of my teaching when I was swamped with music to learn for school plays and assemblies – the actual difficulties of these music were only about Grade 4 level at most, but because I am not used to learning pieces quickly I ended up making an absolute hack of everything. It didn’t exactly help that my predecessor was an accompanist of note and could read (almost) anything under the sun. My musical ego took a further dent when a former colleague, who I was very friendly with at the time, told me that a senior member of staff had now stressed her reservations about my musicianship. Looking back, this was precisely the kick up the backside that I needed as it gave me every motivation to do something about my sight-reading. And if I can, at the age of twenty-nine, learn to sight read and make a success of it (I am by no means a voracious sight-reader, but I am a hell of a lot better than what I was ten years ago), then I truly believe that there is hope for everyone who is willing to give music notation a go.

Perhaps I am a hopeful Romantic (as opposed to a hopeless one), but teaching someone how to read music notation goes beyond just equipping them with the intellectual know-how of playing a piece of music. Just like any self-respecting teacher of literature, I strongly feel that it is a music teacher’s duty to introduce his/her students to the scores of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, etc. How would a teacher of German literature feel if his/her students went through their entire high-school career without having read a word of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or Faust? I am not for a moment suggesting that all teachers do a Martin Krause (Krause was one of Liszt’s student and taught the likes of Claudio Arrau and Edwin Fisher) and set our students the whole of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes to learn for homework, which was what Arrau got when he started his studies with Krause. But perhaps an introduction to some of the more well-known works of the Classical music literature: I recall smiling widely when one of my student remarked that the transition between the slow movement and finale of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto reminded him of ‘a sun gradually rising at dawn.’ Finally, through the importance of music notation, a teacher is able to teach a student skills such as ethics, discipline: how to practise more efficiently and intelligently; integrity: to respect the composer’s score; grit: to persist and keep going once you have the goal in sight; and communication. All of these, when applied to someone’s everyday live, will not only make them a better person, but help them to make a difference to society.

In anticipation of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year of 2017, my girlfriend send me a short video on the meaning of the annual celebration as well as the symbols that a pair of chopsticks hold. In this poignant film, there was a scene where a mum introduces her daughter to a pair of chopsticks for the very first time. At first the daughter was intrigued by this strange culinary invention, but as she tries to use them her efforts quickly spiral into frustration, and frustration soon turns to tears. While her daughter is upset and close to giving up, mum remain calm and continues to encourage the teary infant, who eventually succeeded in using the chopsticks to eat her dinner, with a beaming grin. As music teachers, the understanding of music notation is of paramount importance when it comes to the interpretation of the composer’s musical intentions. However, we must also bear in mind that every student is different and unique in his/her own way, hence our job is to merely locate and open the door, but (ultimately) it is the student’s decision to walk through it. I will not, even for one second, bat an eyelid if my girlfriend decides to ask for a spoon and a fork when we dine at our favourite Chinese restaurant. But she is adamant about using chopsticks as they are much more rewarding when sampling Oriental cuisine.


As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children

4 thoughts on “There’s just one problem: I don’t want to read the notes”

  1. WOW … this is amazingly written!!! I am just so grateful for everything you have taken the time to say, describe and consciously move beyond your wish to not be in debate. I’m a returning-from-decades-ago somewhat achieving relic pianist and an absolutely dreadful sightreader. What you have written here has given me so much hope as I’m starting back at Grade 3 and need to believe that i can learn to sightread (as well as become a better piano musician). Thank you deeply Michael. I cannot thank you enough.

    1. Hi Sharon! Thank you so much for taking time to read my article, I have been asked many many times if there is a ‘cut off point’ when it comes to learning the piano and sight reading and truly believe that there one is never too old or too young (in the case of Benjamin Button) to do what you want to do! All the very best with your pianistic (and musical) journey! I would love to hear how you get on!

      P.S. I have also written other articles for Frances’s blog if you are interested… 😛

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