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The Reading Hurdle and How to Jump It

Q: I’m working on being a more fluent sight-reader. I can read notes and their values but it takes me a while to transfer that to the instrument. Any advice on how to most effectively improve?

A: Good for you for devoting time to this worthwhile endeavor!

Learning to read music is much like learning to read a spoken language. While it is important to learn the rules and technical aspects of the language, the most important thing is to do it, and often.

Reading is a real “use it or lose it” type of skill. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who have gotten frustrated because they spend hours in a day working on a piece of music and how to translate it to the instrument, only to not go back for another week or two and have to start over.

I always say that it’s better to spend a solid 20 minutes a day (every day) reading, than to spend 10 hours in one day but then not go back to it for a week.

The knowledge is built and internalized brick by brick (note by note). In order to really internalize it, you need to continue to build upon that knowledge daily. This way, the stuff you fully get is further internalized, the stuff you kind of get is further solidified, the stuff you don’t yet have will be much more in reach.

If you are working on it already, chances are that you’ve gotten some good music to read. I’m a big fan of classical pieces for bass (or cello, and any bass clef instrument will do). Typically, classical music is often more linear in nature, so it’ll make better sense visually (as opposed to starting off by reading bebop heads, for example).

Do this every single day for as long as you can devote to it. You will make the note-to-fretboard associations one note at a time.

Pay attention to relationships. For example, if you know that the lowest space (between lines) is an A, then, when you see a note on the bottom line, you can think to yourself, “ok, it’s one below A… must be a G!”. This is how you will star to make the associations and, if you do it every day, they will stick in no time.

In addition to the cello and bass music I mentioned, pick up some written transcriptions of any solos or melodies that you already know and like. It is good if you know how it’s supposed to sound so you know when you’ve made a mistake. Plus, you’ll get a kick out of learning familiar material anyway.

Rufus Reid has written some wonderful books, and I am a big fan of his The Evolving Bassist. This is a wonderful book and spans the evolution of one’s playing from the Major scale, to reading, to walking bass lines to some great transcriptions of solos.

Have fun learning and your bound to put in the time necessary to get the most out of it!

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typo: 3rd paragraph from last
This is how you will star to make the associations and, if you do it every day, they will stick in no time.


Another really important thing is to learn how to translate for the whole fretboard, you can be fluent with reading lower notes in position 1, but then be clueless as you get into the higher notes. What I do is just play through a classical piece a couple of times and each time try and figure out a different position on the neck to play it at.