Not too long ago I received a phone call that went something lie this: “Mr. Burns, I have a friend who’s a very successful rock drummer but he doesn’t read music. He’s never taken lessons but he’s decided to take the plunge. Can we set up an appointment?”
We set up the appointment. At the lesson, I was quite surprised to discover that the drummer in question was none other than Bill Ward, the original drummer with Black Sabbath. Bill explained to me that he has been doing a lot of studio work and some producing and has run into situations where reading would have been a big help. He did not like the feeling of guessing how certain parts were supposed to be played. He wanted to be sure he understood what was necessary, since the studio work he was doing was very different from touring with the group.
By the second lesson, Bill was actually sight-reading quarter and 8th notes. His eyes lit up and in a mildly British accent he said, “I feel as though the eagle has just landed.” He was so relieved that it was not as difficult as he imagined it would be. He even said, “I wish I had done this sooner.”
I have a lot of respect for Bill and for what he is doing. People rarely go back and learn things they probably should have learned when they were younger. They tend to just keep putting things off, rationalizing that they really don’t need to read right now. I read where a famous guitar player actually said that, with the advent of tape recorders, it was no longer necessary to read music. This is such a childish statement that I was sad to see it printed in a well-know magazine.
Many years ago, a young man by the name of Ron Carducci came to me and said, “I’m already nineteen years old. Is it too late to begin playing the drums?” I told him that it was not too late if he really applied himself. Within ten years, Ron was playing all the shows at Ceasar’s Place in Las Vegas in the house orchestra. He is a good example of what can happen when you apply yourself.
Learning to read music is a lot like going to the dentist: The fear of going is usually much worse than the experience. In Bill’s case, it had been on his mind for years. On one studio date, the conductor and the rhythm section began to discuss what could be played in a certain part of the music. Bill felt very uneasy because he couldn’t understand what they were talking about. Fortunately, after he was able to hear it, he realized it was not all that complicated. However, that feeling of not being sure is what made his decision for him. He said to himself, “I am finally going to learn to read.”
As I explained to Bill, reading drum music is much easier than reading the newspaper. The English alphabet has twenty-six letters that can be combined endlessly. Drummers only have to learn six note values and six rests; only twelve symbols in all. Even when you add the various forms of triplets, they are still based on the same fundamental note values. At any rate, reading music is just simple mathematics.
At the present time, I have a very talented young student who is planning on attending Berklee College of Music next term. When he first began to study with me, his reading skills were quite poor. One day, when he was getting a little discouraged, I told him, “Look! As far as talent, feel, hearing and ability go, you are a ten. As far as reading and technique go, you are only a three. However, that is no problem. I can’t teach talent but I can teach you how to read and how to play the instrument. It just takes a little time and some patience.”
Today, his reading is excellent and his control has improved greatly. Because reading is no longer a problem, he has more confidence. That’s one of the side benefits of learning to read: Proving to yourself that you can do it makes you feel good about yourself. It helps you face the next challenge with a more positive attitude. Each thing that you learn in life helps prepare you for the next learning experience. After a while, you develop confidence in your ability to learn. This, in itself, makes learning easier. And once you make it easier, you can make it fun!
Bill ward and I have had a lot of fun at his lessons. Working with someone of Bills age and experience is different from the usual teacher/student relationship. It’s more a sharing of experience. We’ve had a lot of laughs as he has discovered that it really is easier than he thought.
Bill has also expressed a desire to learn the rudiments. He wants to cover the areas he missed by not studying sooner. He is smart enough to know that studying is not going to “mess up his style” or “make him less creative.” He will simply know more about music and understand more about drumming. He already has a proven style. He wants to expand it.
I don’t want to embarrass Bill but I really do admire his spirit. I look forward to his lessons because we have become friends. I want all of you to know about Bill in the hope that his experiences will encourage many of you to study and learn to read.
Those of you who might be putting off learning to read should make a decision. Decide to go back and learn. You will be glad you did. Remember, when you lack information, you have less to work with in your career. And it doesn’t matter what your age happens to be. Bill is no youngster. By the same token, Ron Carducci thought it might be too late at the age of nineteen. Believe me, if you really want to learn. It is never too late!