Do You Have to Read Music?

There are guys who are just better at certain styles of playing. I’ve seen great Latin style drummers in town, one, Walfredo Reyes, Sr., who was percussionist for Wayne Newton, great guy, and a world-renowned Afro-Cuban percussionist. But when he got to Vegas he couldn’t read a note of music, so he actually came to me when he started with Wayne Newton to learn how to read music. We traded lessons for a while and he taught me some hand drumming while I helped him with the reading, then he started getting into the digital stuff and we worked together on that.

His son, Walfredo Jr. and his other boy Danny, who has been with countless big name stars, they are great Afro-Cuban percussionists also. He’s been here a number of times. They would come and show me things, but back then if it was on paper, they couldn’t read it either. It seemed really funny to me that they could play so well and not read music. In the old days, many musicians didn’t read music, but now especially, time and money has come into the art and business of music and as a working drummer joining a project they won’t have time to show you what to do, and they want you to play it now, so they write it down.

Bands and shows have to be put together quicker, so they put it down on paper so you need to know how to read and also to interpret it how they want it. And the thing about the Scottish drumming parts is that even though it’s written down it’s not to be interpreted the way it’s written. You have to know the style and flare of the drumming, of the music. That was the hardest thing for me in the beginning with that. To take what I know about playing in a square form, exactly as it’s written on paper and discover that’s not what they want. You have to know the style beyond what is written.

So to learn anything in music you’ve got to open your mind. You can’t say, “My way is the only way” because it’s not. Even for me. I know there are different ways of both playing and teaching. For me, from day you are a born to the day you die you are a student. Always. I am working my way up in the Gaming business, and I learn all the time, I ask for input and when I get it I make sure they know I appreciate it and respect their knowledge. And they appreciate my thanks in return. I’ve made so many friends there even in the last year.

This sort of humility, openness and appreciation builds relationships, which is so important in music as well as all of life. When you are working with other musicians, bands and anyone, you skills are critical, reading helps you adapt fast, but beyond that it’s all relationships and they are founded on your character. You can be talented but a jerk and they won’t want you for long if you are a jerk. People skills are huge–monumental. Nowadays people want a positive energy out there. They don’t want negativity.

But back to reading. No, you can be a great drummer without reading music, but you can be a greater drummer—and a more employable drummer—if you can read music. You can learn faster, you can join in faster, you can communicate and preserve your own ideas faster if you can read and even write music. Reading music is one more powerful skill for any musician. Some amazingly talented drummers can get away without reading, but others get away with more when they can read.