If you aspire to be a well-rounded musician ready for any gig that comes your way, one of the things you’ll have to get together is sight-reading. After my first few times sitting in with the outstanding Paul Keller Orchestra in Michigan, I knew I had some work to do to avoid “sounding like I was reading.” So I took a regular gig accompanying voice lessons for music school singers, which consisted mainly of sight-reading tunes for 30 minutes at a time. I played jazz standards, show tunes, and opera. Before long, I started gaining the confidence to play anything put in front of me. Along the way, I found that the connection between eyes, brain, and fingers can be improved with a few quick tips. Here are some that worked for me and that I’m convinced will work for you.
Identify the road map. The first things you’ll want to look for are the obvious: key signature and time signature. Quickly scan the rest of the chart to see if either change during the tune. Look for any written markings, such as “solo,” “lay back,” “gradually building,” and so on.
Look for stumbling blocks. Keep an eye out for sections that appear to be complicated at first—then try them out to see if they sound easier than they look. Ex. 1 is an example of a line that sounds less tricky than it looks on paper. Don’t worry about the subdivisions—focus on keeping a steady “big four” pulse. Also identify sections that might be just you, or that have you paired with another instrument in unison.
If you’re given the intro or outro of a tune, you’ll want to make sure you can play the part authoritatively. Ex. 2 demonstrates this point, on an intro that’s just piano alone. Play it in a strong manner to set a tone for the rest of the band when they enter.
Do your homework. Sometimes the composer will send you charts ahead of time, or upload them to a shared folder so anyone in the band can take a look. If they made the effort to do this, it usually means the music is complicated enough that you should carve out some time to look it over. Ex. 3 illustrates this exact point. The overall structure is clear, but there’s enough going on that you’d want to “woodshed” this before performing.
Ask questions. It’s possible to figure some things out—like unison lines, solo sections, or other complicated passages—just by being vocal about them. Sometimes a quick description can immediately decipher the mess of notes and lines in front of you. Plus, sometimes you may be doing the composer or arranger a favor. They don’t always have time to check their work, or they may have just finished a part right before the rehearsal or gig and transposed something incorrectly. These kinds of things happen all the time. Obviously, diplomacy in how you ask is key here.
Go for it. If you’re starting to feel confident about the music in front of you, don’t back down when you get to the tricky sections. Remember that you’re making music, and it’s supposed to sound and feel good. And if you’re the only one in the band that “sounds like you’re reading,” then you know what you have to work on for the next time!
Raise Your Hand
“There’s no shame in wanting to get something right, so don’t be afraid to speak up if you have questions about the music that’s in front of you,” says New York-based keyboardist and composer David Cook, who also happens to be musical director for six-time Grammy winner Taylor Swift. He has also accompanied acclaimed artists like Jennifer Hudson, Natasha Bedingfield, and Lizz Wright, and is a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground. Cook’s debut album as a leader, Pathway, is available now. Visit him at davidcookmusic.com.