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What Next for Sight-Reading Skills
#2601241 01/05/17 09:14 AM
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Hello. A couple of years ago, I joined the local jazz big band as keyboard player. I got the gig because I was interested, and because I own a Casio digital piano light and easy enough to drag to rehearsals - I am not a very good pianist.

I can read music, but had never tried any sight-reading, so the past couple of years I've been getting my butt kicked because I literally could not keep on the same page as the band.

So I made a commitment to work on my sight-reading. I had this old church hymnal that I use as practice. It's perfect for sight-reading practice: four voices spread across two staves, most keys are easy with some excursion into four and five flats, and pretty simple rhythms. As it got easier for me to sight-read my hymnal, I started sight-reading Bach Chorales - these are a lot like the stuff in the hymnal, but somewhat more complex: frequent tenth stretches in the LH, a lot more action in both LH and RH. While I cannot claim to sight-read the Chorales well, I am getting more comfortable with them. (I still go r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w)

But the Bach Chorales are still a lot easier than reading the big band charts. I look at one big band chart every day for practice, and they are still kicking my butt.

Can anyone suggest some good material I can practice on that will help me get comfy with reading the big band charts?

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Re: What Next for Sight-Reading Skills
BbAltered #2601269 01/05/17 10:50 AM
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Hi BbAltered,
I have played both piano and drumset in big band situations and it requires different skills altogether than just playing jazz alone or even with a small jazz group.

Here's a link to a big band play-along book with included recordings as well as authentic big band charts that you typically would see. This way you could, at your own pace, practice keeping up with the chart in real time as it progresses.

Big Band play along book

I would also suggest getting a Real Book and just start at the first page, sight read slowly through the chords once through the chart with both hands playing the chords, turn the page, sight read through the chords once, etc. By the middle of the book, you'll be ready for most anything when it comes to reading big band chord charts.

When it comes to actual pitches however, this will take time, as with anything, but maybe you could go through the same Real Book and sight read the melody only on the right hand, practicing applying whatever key signatures might come up.

Best of luck to you!

Re: What Next for Sight-Reading Skills
BbAltered #2601308 01/05/17 01:06 PM
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Originally Posted by BbAltered
But the Bach Chorales are still a lot easier than reading the big band charts. I look at one big band chart every day for practice, and they are still kicking my butt.


Yup. Totally different skill sets.

What you are finding out is that a priori sightreading is only a small part of the mix. Most of it is recall of learned patterns, and there are very few in common between chorales and big band.

I would bet your problem is the difference in syncopated rhythms. You need to master that.

I would not read ONE big band chart a day. You're still practicing a priori and not building the skill set. Take one big band chart and read it for at least a week, preferably a month. Play it into memory. Thoroughly learn rhythms and patterns so you can recall them when sightreading, rather than inventing from scratch.

That will give you much more transfer to the next piece than a very large amount of chorale practice or sightreading novel material.


gotta go practice
Re: What Next for Sight-Reading Skills
BbAltered #2601346 01/05/17 02:18 PM
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Bb: Are you having trouble site reading the written out parts and/or the chords where you just comp?
I play in a big band (they got rid of the last guy because he couldn't read well enough) and here are some thoughts:
1. Where the charts have a tricky written out part, I take a picture with my camera and shed it at home.
2. Many times there are written out voicings for comping, but if you just use your regular voicings, played with good rhythm, it sounds fine and no one cares.
3. As TimR noted, rhythm is a big factor. There are syncopated rhythms that you slowly begin to recognize on site. I have no suggestion for how to get better at that more quickly, unfortunately! Just time and repetition.
4. Make sure to learn to listen to how charts in general are structured. At least a few times in every gig I get lost when comping chords, but I can feel where we are in a chart; e.g., when the horns start a new melody, it's probably where a new "lettered" section starts.

I guess what I'm saying is that there is a lot of ways to help yourself other than just purely learning to read notes more quickly. Hopefully some of these suggestions will be useful.

Re: What Next for Sight-Reading Skills
BbAltered #2601395 01/05/17 04:26 PM
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Hello. Thanks to all who responded - I appreciate your thoughts. A little more info:

I in my fifties and have been playing pretty much daily since I was a teen. I never had formal training in school, tho' I've had years of lessons from a living jazz giant. I play publicly in a soul dance band, the jazz big band, and a jazz sax quartet.

As a kid, I started with rock and jazz, classic music never really appealed to me until I was in my 30's. One of the first music books I ever bought was a Real Book (back in the day when displaying one on the store shelf was a copyright violation). So I have lots of experience sight-reading a page of chord symbols: no real problems there (unless it is a Weather Report song with four compound chords in every bar).

The big band I play in has a book of over 340 tunes. The director lets me keep the piano book at home, and part of my sight-reading practice is to look at at least one chart every day. The charts themselves are a mixed bag: some are a single page of chord symbols only; some have been copied so many times that you can't see anything (it's so difficult to beg/borrow decent big band charts these days!); some have the piano part fully written out (with chord symbols above the stave); some are 12-14 page monstrosities with note-for-note transcriptions of the recorded piano solo.

I of course do better with tunes that have a slower tempo, and with tunes that I already know well. And hurrah for the internet: I can usually find a youtube video of the specific arrangement we are using in our band. This allows me the opportunity to hear the arrangement at home, and to follow along with the chart.

I am finding thru my sight-reading practice that I am developing a better sense of where my hands and fingers are and where they have to go without looking at the keyboard. This is a big help to all aspects of my piano playing. For this reason, I am not sure of the wisdom of spending a lot of time memorizing any one jazz chart. TimR is correct that it is helpful to recognize written rhythmic patterns, and the written rhythmic patterns I see in my hymnal and in the Bach Chorales is very different from the big band material. I also already spend some time in my practice learning new jazz and classical music from the written page.

erichlof has a good suggestion of working on sight-reading my Real Book (I now have 3 "official" volumes of Real Book, as well as some "commercial" fake books - so lots of material to work on!). This will force me to confront the difficult tuplets common in jazz, and will provide some of the rhythmic pattern recognition suggested by TimR.

Thanks again to all who responded.


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