Thoughts On Sight Reading and So Forth

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Blog Entry by Jazz Pianist George Colligan
May 10, 2012

Last night, I went and sat in on Mike Prigodich's gig at Ivories. I went to listen, but Prigodich asked me to sit in; first on drums, then on piano. He made me sight read some of his music, which was pretty challenging fusionesque material. I made it through, but I left feeling as though my sight reading had atrophied a lot. The other musicians and audience seemed to think it was ok, but I know better. The question is, will I be able to improve? Teaching full time, being a parent, and playing gigs doesn't leave much time in the schedule for extra practice.

I think sight reading is a very valuable skill, although in some ways, it is misunderstood. First of all, some musicians really develop their ears, and never spend the time learning to read in more than a rudimental way. I don't think that those musicians should be thought of as less skilled. It's more like being differently skilled. For example, if you can hear, then you theoretically don't need to be able to read, because as long as you can memorize, you can really learn the music. (Years ago, I played on a recording led by guitarist Cheryl Bailey. The bassist was the late Vince Loving, a great musician from Baltimore. There were charts for every tune, but Bailey would just demonstrate Loving's bass parts, and he would just play them back to her, and then he would memorize them. He was the only one of us not looking at charts during the recording!) I believe the ears should always trump the eyes. That's why composer Raymond Scott always taught his musicians by ear, instead of giving them charts. It looks more professional when the musicians aren't reading, right?

There's a funny bit by underrated comedian Todd Barry, where he talks about seeing Aerosmith performing with the London Symphony. He thought it was weird that Aerosmith had no sheet music, while the conservatory trained London Symphony needed sheet music for such simple music! He imagines the strained thoughts of the orchestra members: " A major...uh, oh, A MINOR?" I think he actually has a point in that be able to read it might actually make us lazy. Written music can be a crutch.

Lonnie Plaxico, who also has amazing ears, always told us that Art Blakey never allowed musicians to read on the bandstand. So when I was in Plaxico's band, he tried to insist that we wouldn't use charts. My parts were so difficult that I HAD to memorize them in order to play them. Admittedly, Plaxico's charts were much more technically demanding than say, Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'". Still, it makes for a better performance if you really KNOW the music.

I suppose I'm off on a tangent about memorizing. I think it's important to develop that skill as well. One of my piano students at the University of Manitoba brought in Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" to a lesson. I had assigned this months prior, and asked him why he hadn't memorized it. “Well, if you hadn't played this tune in a while, would you REALLY be able to play it from memory?" "Of COURSE!" I exclaimed. "Maybe there's something else which is holding you back? You do realize that Cannabis has an effect on memory?" My student stuck his tongue out at me....

However, being able to sight read well can make things go much faster in the studio, or on a gig if there is no chance for rehearsal, or if there is no recording of the piece, etc...I've always envied musicians that could really read well. As a trumpet student at Peabody Conservatory, I met many great classical piano students who seemed to be able to sight read anything you put in front of them. I had a pianist roommate for a brief time who seemed to be a flawless reader. I actually tried to write something really impossible, to see if he couldn't read it. He didn't bat an eye and played it down flawlessly. So much for that.

I was a decent sight reader on trumpet, but trumpet only requires that you read one line at a time. Piano can be a much more challenging proposition. My teacher Wayne Cameron helped us with our sight reading. One of my classmates was trumpeter Alex Norris; during one masterclass, another trumpet student declined to play a solo piece, which he had been assigned a month earlier. Mr. Cameron said, "Alex, why don't you sight read his piece?" Norris expertly sightread the music which the other fellow was unable to play at all after working on it for a month! Talk about intimidating.

I had to really work on my sight reading, and I'm still nowhere near where I would like to be. There are a bunch of other jazz pianists who sight read on the level I wish I could achieve; Geoffrey Keezer, Helen Sung, Ethan Iverson, David Kane, and my wife Kerry Politzer as well. But there is one guy who is hands down (no pun intended) the best sight reader I have ever seen; Kenny Drew, Jr. I witnessed him bringing a stack of music books from Pedelson's Music (which closed in 2009) in New York, putting them on the piano, and reading them as if he had been preparing the music for 6 months. And these weren't simple tunes; this was HARD 20th Century Russian piano literature. This was piano acrobatics, and Drew could just READ it like the morning paper. I seriously thought about quitting the piano that day...

I've mentioned before in this blog that there are many misconceptions about jazz musicians. You'd be surprised how many jazz musicians can read BETTER than classical musicians. Especially when it comes to rhythm. Plus, even if a jazz musician doesn't read on par with a classical musician, he can take the music home and maybe in a week or a month, come back and play on par with classical musicians. And yet, you can't give a non-improvising classical musician a jazz tune and say, "Come back in a week and be able to improvise..."

If you watch the Ken Burns "Jazz", there is an entire segment on the James Reese Europe Orchestra, and how these African- American musicians were considered crack readers. "They could read a moving snake! If a fly landed on the page, he got PLAYED!" But they would memorize everything and play without sheet music. Unfortunately, the white audiences just assumed that because they were black that they had no training, and just played by ear. I think some of those attitudes remain, regardless of the color of the musicians.

The top 6 things you can do to improve your sight reading are as follows:

1. Try to sight read brand new music every day. Don't worry about what it is, or whether you like it, or what it sounds like. You are now a sight reading robot. You will read anything that is put in front of you. Go to the music library, dig out sheet music from your attic, borrow some books from your friends, whatever. The only criteria is that you've never seen it before.

2. Don't look at your hands; look at the music! (I realize this doesn't apply to every instrument.) How can you follow the music if you keep looking down at your hands! Learn to play by feel as much as you can. And keep your eyes on the music Think of the music page as the teleprompter, and you are looking at it like Ron Burgundy from Anchorman. ("He'll read anything that's written on there!")

3. Look over the music just before you start and find the trouble spots. Check for key changes, lots of 16th notes, weird rhythms, etc... just so you have a fighting chance before you put the pedal to the metal.

4. Look as far ahead as you can while you play. This is tricky, but it will help you to plan ahead. It's a different level of alertness. It's kind of like driving a car; you always have to keep your eyes far ahead, not just focused on the road in front of you. That way, you can react before it's too late. Same with sight reading music. The best sight readers read one or two systems ahead, let alone a few bars ahead. Try it next time you read and see if it helps.

5. Sight read and play so slowly or out of time that you don't play any wrong notes. This will help you with your accuracy, and will give you an idea of just how slowly you need to play to get everything perfect. It will help you develop your reflexes, and hopefully it will help you to play faster with accuracy in the long run.

6. Sight read and set the metronome; keep the tempo and don't worry about wrong notes. This is especially important for professional playing, because there is no time in the studio or in some accompanying situations to perfect every nuance. You need to play it up to speed. Especially with pianists, you might have to leave some notes out in order to keep the time. Basically, this is known as "faking it." But it's a good skill to have.

Good luck, and above all, be patient. Just 10 minutes a day can help. Maybe spend 10 fewer minutes on Facebook and sit down and sight read a new piece. You might surprise yourself if you keep at it.

For this original blog entry and interesting interviews with jazz musicians, go to: