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Improving Your Sight Reading: A Guide to Better Reading on the Bandstand

Q: I’m at the point where I’m handling lead sheets better on gigs, but I sometimes get lost and/or second guess myself, usually resulting in me getting lost. Do you have any tips for becoming a good sight reader?

A: Reading chord charts, and especially written notation, is one of the most useful tools you will develop as a working bassist. This is a must for any jazz musician.

Going beyond the obvious – learning the notes on the staff, fully understanding chord symbols and their meanings, and so forth – there are a few things that you can do to help you when handed a new chart:

1. Build a “road map”

The first thing you should do when you’re handed a new piece of music on a gig or rehearsal is to figure out the structure of the tune. Scan the chart from beginning to end, making note of any repeats, DC (go back to the beginning), DS (go back to the DS), coda (usually happens after a DC or DS at which point you’d jump from one sign to the next. Quite often leading to the end of the chart) signs.

Be relaxed about this – you don’t want to frantically scan the page, because you’ll lose your focus. Just get it in your head and you’re more likely to avoid mistakes.

Always carry highlighters, Sharpies, pens and pencils in your gig bag, so you can write little cues, guides, or simply highlight the repeats and codas and the like, so they’ll stand out better.

2. Look for the tricky passages

Fast lines or tricky rhythms may trip you up if you’re not prepared for them. Taking a few moments to working them out in your head or silently on your instrument will save you headaches down the road.

3. Look ahead while you’re reading

A good reader will constantly move their eyes back and forth a little bit so that they can plan ahead for what’s coming. If you can keep your brain a few bars ahead of your fingers, you’ll be in much better shape. This takes time to develop, but it will come with practice.

4. Stay relaxed

Don’t get nervous or anxious about the tune. Just pay attention and focus, and don’t forget that you are making me music, which leads me to the final thing to remember…

5. Listen

You are making music, not just reading dots on a page.

Play with feeling. Articulate, phrase and feel the music you are making. If you are just playing the right notes at the right time, but not playing with musicality, it’s all for nothing.

Listen to how each section of the music sounds. This is helpful if you do get lost. If you know the difference the way the A, B & C sections (or Verse, Chorus and Bridge) sound and you stay focused, by the time the band gets to the next section, you should be able to easily jump back in.

Don’t be afraid to lay out or, at least lower your volume and play less if you’re not in the right spot. It is better to get ambiguous harmonically, lay out altogether or keep it super simple than to pound out wrong note after wrong note hoping you can find the right one. Relax, listen to the music and hear your way back to the chart if you get lost. It happens to everyone.

A great way to find your spot (if you’re lost) is by looking at the rhythm of the written melody. If you are reading a lead sheet (chords and written melody to the tune), you should always be able to reference where you are to the melody of the tune, at least during the heads.

Referencing the melody is also a great tool when soloing. Having your treble clef reading down can really make you sound good on unfamiliar tunes when soloing because you can use a combination of the written melody and your knowledge of the chords written out to craft a really nice solo without even really knowing the tune.

The main thing to keep in mind when starting to learn how to read is that it takes time to develop. It is also a very “use it or lose it” type skill, meaning that you will develop much faster is you read a little bit every single day. Keep at it and the rewards will be great on the bandstand.