Monday, 21 September 2009

The Secret Guide to Sight Reading ( the bits they don't tell you)

Hi all. I was asked recently for tips on sight reading and started to think about the things you need to know other than how to read notation. I know a lot of players who can sit down and work their way through a piece of notated music, but wouldn't feel comfortable turning up to a gig and having a pad of charts placed in front of them,so started to think about what else is involved.

Here's what I came up with, based on my own experiences of sight reading on gigs, which will hopefully be of use to you...

Before starting a piece

Have a quick look at the whole thing and check
- The time signature (and any changes to the time signature or tempo)
- The key signature (and any key changes)
- If there are any repeats or Coda signs, make sure you know where they go. Nothing worse than scrabbling to find where the repeat is, especially if it was two pages ago!
- If the chart is really long, look if there's any way you can fold it into a book so you can flip the pages. Also look out for open strings or parts you can play with one hand while the other flips the page ( or even better - a few bars rest!)
- Have a look what the highest and lowest notes are. This'll help you decide what position to play it in. If you can find a position where you can grab the highest and lowest notes easily, do so.
- Check if there are any dynamic markings ( a lot of the bass charts I see don't include them) and follow them ( this also takes a bit of listening as different bands will decrease or increase volume at different rates)

If you need to look at the neck, eg if there are a lot of position shifts, set the music stand up slightly to your left (assuming you're right handed) so that you can see the neck and music without looking back and fore. It can be really easy to lose your place if you're glancing away. Similarly, if you have a conductor, try and set the stand so you can see them over the music without too much movement.

If you get presented with a tricky piece, break it down. Start by just playing the rhythm then add the notes in. Believe it or not, an audience will notice an out of time note long before they notice an out of tune one. If you're working it out ahead of time, don't use a metronome until you're comfortable with it, otherwise you may find you end up missing things "getting it at speed".

If you are given a line of 16th notes that are not playable at sight, play the first one, use muted notes for the middle ones, and play any accented notes and the last one. Yes, it's cheating and ideally you should play them all, but this really works on gigs if something terrifying is put in front of you :-)

After a while, you'll get used to how certain shapes and rhythms sound eg a note on one line and note on the next line is a third, etc or an eighth note followed by two 16th notes is the "Steve Harris gallop". This allows you to read much easier in the same way that you read words and sentences rather than individual letters.

Read regularly

Like all skills, if you don't maintain it you'll lose it. If I haven't done a reading gig for a bit, I usually get the Bach Cello Suites, or some James Jamerson transcriptions, out for an hour to get my eyes and hands in synch again. Otherwise, I will be really rusty.

Above all though, make sure it's musical. When I first heard a recording of me reading a walking line it was awful - every note was dead on the beat but had no swing whatsoever. It's important to remember WHY you're reading the chart - to make music.

Hope that helps, any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.


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