Monday, December 10, 2007

1. Background

Today I decided to become a good piano sight-reader. Although I'm already a jazz piano player, with a 4-6 gigs per month, my sight-reading is lousy. Really lousy. I'll bet that most seven-year-olds who have had a year of lessons read music better than I.

My plan is to get the best advice on how to improve my sight-reading skills, and then devote 2+ hours per day to sight-reading practice -- for at least one year.

If you are in the same situation, you may be asking yourself what's required to reach this goal, and how long it will take. You're also scouring the web looking for tips on how to jump-start your sight-reading. Well, I'm writing this blog for you. OK, also to show how clever I am, but mostly for you.

[IMPORTANT: before you begin -- click here to read my report and advice from the end of the year.]

Why I Want to be a Good Sight-Reader

I've found that I don't need to be a good sight-reader to play small-combo jazz; the jazz "charts," instead of being standard music with every note written out, consist of single note melody lines and chords. However:
  1. Once in a while I might might need to read standard music to play with, for example, a big band.

  2. I don't feel like I'm a real piano player if I can't read music well.

  3. I'd be embarrassed if someone said "Hey, Al plays piano, let's have him accompany us with this Christmas carol music!"

  4. Occasionally I use some educational material (for example, transcriptions, sample intros or endings), and it would be convenient to be able to read it quickly.

  5. I like the process of acquiring a new skill.
My Musical Background

For you to evaluate whether your experience in learning to sight-read will match mine, you need to know a little about my musical background. So, here's a boring look at my history.

As a young kid I played piano by ear, but never took formal lessons. At age 9 I took up trombone, and studied it seriously until the final year of high school, when a scheduling conflict between chemistry and band ended my studies. I also took lessons in guitar, and played in a rock band.

But I pretty much did nothing with music from college until 1987 (age 34), when my interest in jazz was rekindled.

I took formal piano lessons for a year or two, worked hard, and learned a lot, but the sight-reading just wasn't happening.

In 1992 (age 38) I picked up the trombone again, and got serious about jazz trombone. My sight-reading was better on trombone than piano (hey, only one note at a time!), but I still needed to polish it up for big band playing. I played jazz trombone seriously until 2005 (age 52), performing with a number of large and small groups.

In 2005, I was having some problems with my shoulder, caused by too much trombone playing, so it was time to switch back to piano. This time I concentrated on jazz, and didn't work much on sight-reading. That is, my playing consisted of playing the chord changes, with improvisation in the right hand. That has worked well, and I now lead a jazz quartet (Sax, drums, bass, and piano), and also play in duos (Sax & piano or piano & bass) and trios.

This last November, I reread A Soprano on her Head, and it inspired me to give sight-reading another chance.

Yay, that's the end of the long boring history. Now to find out whether I can learn to sight-read!


Anonymous said...

This is the first blog I've encountered about learning to sight read music. Apparently the vast majority of people are trying to go the other way, that is, learn to play by ear. I'm a sight reader. I can't find middle C without the music.

I've concluded that playing by ear takes special talent but playing by sight just takes practice. Virtually anybody can learn to sight read. But playing by ear is something you can't learn through practice. Printed music is crutch for people who haven't got the gift.

Marian McPartland is one of the greatest jazz pianists ever. She says she can hardly read a note. And why should she? There's no need.

Ear players are the real artists. They are much more pleasant to listen to than sight readers. If I were you I'd just enjoy the gift and forget about the torture of learning to sight read. Why would a sighted person want to learn to walk with a cane?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting blog and I'm in a similar situation.
I don't agree with the first comment about not being able to learn to play by ear by practice unless your totally deaf.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade I had a basic music class in school I don't remember much from it except the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine and FACE. Which always stayed in my mind.

In high School I became interested in guitar after hearing a new friend play and he played by ear.

He showed me how he would learn songs which was pretty basic information at the time neither of us new what an Interval was nor could we read sheet music.

So how did we learn anything by ear?
1.make sure your guitar was in tune with the music your practicing
try picking out an open E note or other note you can easily recognize by ear and tune to the note.

2.Listen to the music you want to learn hear the rhythm and melody I'm sure everyone gets songs stuck in there head right?

3.Find the notes or chords that you hear on your guitar and practice till you can play something at speed.

4.Rewind or loop or slow down sections of music that are hard to figure out.

5.we did not have loop or slow down music ability at that time only rewind and listen at full speed.

That's The basic cave man way to transcribe music.

Except we didn't write down note or chords we memorized the music in our head and play the chords and notes on the guitar that we practiced playing.

For me this was easy to learn cause I could always here a tune in my head I didn't even need to have music playing to figure stuff out I would just think of some tune and hear it in my head then find the notes or chords on my guitar and practice playing.

Recently I started learning piano and I wanted to learn to read sheet music better so I began to study a basic music book I had and some basic music theory stuff and learned some new things.

I can now read sheet music fairly well but not fast I pick out the notes from the staffs.

I plan to work on recognizing intervals on the staff instead of individual notes like I,m doing now.

Why would one want to learn to sight read? I wanted to learn so I would have a better understanding of music and write down my own music in a readable format if I come up with the next popular tune.

I have heard that alot of sight readers can't play squat if they don't have sheet music in front of them or a photographic memory.

My theory is if you can hear music you can play it unless your technically uncoordinated with no natural rhythm.

Sorry for the long wall of text