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  • Writer's pictureJake Boldman

Sight Reading

Ok here comes a brand new chart, I'm ready, I've got this, gonna jump on that train and nail these notes, 3.....2.........1........OK LETS GOOOOO I'M DOING IT WOO I GOT THIS OH WAIT OH GOD NO AHHHHHHHHHH...damn

And it's gone. You messed it up. The moment has passed. Never to return. Just like you on this gig.

We've all felt like this at one point or another. That's why I'm really excited to write about sight reading this week. It was a skill I had to put a bunch of hours in on when I was younger and the good new is, I have a ton of advice so buckle up because this one is a novel.

Why, Dear Goddess, Why Do We Have To Practice Sight Reading?

I dig. It's not the most fun thing to work on (I secretly think it is, shhhhhh it's the most fun). We end up sounding bad because it's something we're unfamiliar with, we are having trouble hearing the lines in our head before we play them, and forget about articulations and dynamics, I'm just trying to stay afloat here! All valid points! However, those are your answers as to why we need to practice it. No one wants to sit in a practice room and sound bad the entire time, I get it, but that's part of making progress and getting better! You don't have to work on it for an hour, but read something new everyday. 15 minutes is all it takes. And always end a practice session with something you're good at. It wraps up a session quite nicely and you feel good about the work you put in.

Side rant (feel free to skip this): If you're a younger player you might be surprised to know that just because someone is a band leader or they have a gig that seems like a big deal or they're the ones in charge, doesn't mean that they have their s*** together. It always seems like the person who is in charge is usually the one least qualified to be in charge. That means, among other things, bad charts that don't make any sense (if they even have charts for you, which I know doesn't help my sight reading point but it's still true). You're going to see a ton of E#'s in the key of F and all of the note stems will be backwards and they won't connect to each other and they're actually going to play the tune in A because the singer can't sing it in F. And you know what? They're going to want it to sound good. Our other horn players don't have a problem with the charts. Why are you struggling? Do we need to get someone else who can read this? It's definitely an extreme situation but also one that I've been in more than enough times over the years. And you know what? Good sight reading and critical thinking helped me get through those gigs.

Sight reading is all about recognizing patterns in music quickly. There are only so many ways to write a rhythm in a certain style of music and it's our job to become familiar with those patterns. I say that, but if you've ever played an Arranging 101 classes final projects you'd be surprised how many ways you can write one rhythm.

My final point on "why", is making yourself a reliable person to hire. As freelancers we need to get hired to make ends meet. At the end of the day you want people to know that you can read anything they put in front of you well so you get more calls for gigs. And even though you're not going to play everything you sight read perfectly, there are tricks to make it a lot easier.

The Tricks and What We Should Think About While Sight Reading

Trick number one! As soon as you get a piece of music put in front of you that you are unfamiliar with, look for the darkest spots on the paper. Why? Thats where the most notes are going to be and probably the most difficult passages. Take a second to finger through the part, think about phrasing, cut-offs, dynamics, and note lengths. That's a lot of stuff to do in about 15 seconds but I promise it gets easier the more you do it. Then skim across the rest of the chart looking for irregular rhythms and other oddities to prepare for.

Trick number two! DON'T MISS RHYTHMS!! Easier said than done I know. But really really really focus on reading all of the rhythms correctly. You can hide wrong notes on the first run through (that's more difficult for lead players to get away with) but you can't hide a wrong rhythm. I'm not saying that missed/cracked notes are the goal, we want to read as perfectly as we can all the time, but wrong notes aren't going to derail a band to the point that they need to stop. One messed up unison rhythm, one early entrance, one extra note on the end of a phrase and the whole thing could go off the rails and end up in a dumpster fire. Why? Because it's a jarring feeling that takes us by surprise and breaks our concentration. It messes with our time feel. In that split second your mind goes into problem solving mode. Am I wrong? Should I try to fix it? Where are we now? Oh jeez now I'm lost too! Fear not though, I have two pieces of advice for when this happens:

  1. Always keep good internal time. Be so confident with your time that nothing messes you up. You can march in place with the time to help internalize it, just don't make a scene. A small movement is more than enough to keep you on track. Keep playing your rhythms and ignore anything that doesn't fit. This is especially helpful if an unplanned "stop time" section happens. Stop time is when the drums drop out and every is left with the responsibility of keeping time. I've never seen something trip a band up so much.

  2. Focus. Be in the music at that moment. While you're playing a chart there should be nothing else that has your attention. Even while counting rests. You count those rests. You got this.

Trick number 3! Look ahead. This one made my brain hurt when I first started practicing sight reading. You want me to do what?! How do you expect me to play the music but also look at the notes that are coming up while I'm playing half a measure behind? I hate to say it again, but it just kind of starts happening the more you practice it. What basically begins to happen is that you are looking at the notes coming up while playing where you're at in real time by memory. It's not totally by memory because it's all happening fairly quickly but even though you are looking a few beats ahead you can still see where you're at in real time with your peripheral vision. The image of the measure is still visible to your brain, you're just looking at the next part coming up. Super weird I know. Just keep shedding and it will come.

Our best friend when looking ahead is multi-measure rests. Keep that internal time going but also look ahead to the next section you play. What beat do I come in on? Maybe you can practice your upcoming entrance at the half way point in the rests you're counting? Give yourself every opportunity for success when sight reading.

Trick Number 4! Be aware of the key signature and how the notes you're playing relate to that. This is where great ear training and theory comes into play. Knowing how to navigate through new music using your ears is also critical to practice, especially for brass players as we are generally "shooting into the dark" whereas keyed instruments have more of a fighting chance. There are a ton of apps and websites your can use to better train your ears. There will also be a blog post from me on ear training coming soon so stay tuned. It's important for everyone to have good ears.


You're going to hate this answer. Just do it a lot. Read anything and everything. Read the music at a slow tempo so you make the least amount of mistakes and feel how everything fits together. When I started practicing sight reading I played out of the Charlie Parker Omni Book and The Real Book. The Omni book is great because it's good for preparing to read soli sections as they are like an improvised solo. This works for any transcription book. The Real Book was to get better at reading melodies and common jazz lines over chord changes. The Real Book is a favorite tool of mine because it has a large number of relatively easy songs that all vary in tempo, style, and feel. Put the metronome on, play the song down, turn the page to the next song and repeat. Once you're at the end of the book start over with a different edition or key signature. All new tunes, same idea. Great right?? Both books helped my ear too with hearing jazz lines, phrasing, and common note patterns through chord changes. From there I started reading one part of a duet then the other part, etudes, scale studies, transcriptions, anything that was new.

Here's the break down of how to practice sight reading:

  1. Turn an effing metronome on. Whatever tempo you're trying to practice. Just put one on. That's the whole point of this. Metronome. Time. Please.

  2. Take no more than 15 seconds to look at the music before starting.

  3. Check the key signature.

  4. Check for repeats, codas, D.S., tempo changes, key changes, feel changes, anything strange in the form

  5. Count yourself in and then don't stop playing until you finish the piece. Get lost? Just jump back in where you think you should be. This is probably the most difficult part of sight reading. We are so trained to fix mistakes that it's a reflex to stop immediately when something happens and make it right. We need to reprogram our brains for sight reading though. It doesn't help to stop and dwell on a mistake because on the gig no one will stop for your mistake, and now you're lost. You have to let it go immediately. I don't want to say "don't care about making mistakes" but you kind of have to not care. Make a mental note to check it out later and keep going. If you stop to huff about it, just to let everyone know you realized you made a mistake and you're mad about it, 9 times out of 10 you're going to miss whatever is coming up next. You've lost focus and now you've made another mistake. Just let it go and keep playing well.

  6. Turn the page, rinse, and repeat. Maybe a different tempo to liven things up?


-Real Books / I'll bet if you searched Real Book pdf on Google you could find a some very interesting things to download to help yourself 👀 Use the iRealb app or any Aebersolds to make a fun backing track to play along with

-Omni Books (slooowwwwwwlllllyyyyyyyyy first, then up the tempo)

-Duet Books / Any duet book! I like these though: The Ultimate Collection of Jazz Duets by Rich Willey, Bop Duets by Charles Colins, Arbans Duets pg. 246 in the Arbans Book, Selected Duets by H. Voxman

-Transcriptions / Make a "book" of transcriptions you've done to read from. These can be solos, lead parts, anything you've transcribed

-Read something for another instrument! To practice my upper register I like to work out of violin and flute if I'm up for a challenge. But be smart with it though!

New Resources (this list will be updated as time goes on)

-Sight Reading Monster by Kevin Hicks

This book has every rhythm you could possibly read from quarter notes to dotted 16th rhythms plus 15 major key and 15 minor key page-long reading etudes. They include enharmonic keys for extra practice and he's got books in treble and bass clef. I know what I'm working on!

The Takeaway

15 minutes a day. Something new every time. Don't stop if you make a mistake. Use a metronome. You'll be surprised how quickly you improve! Sight reading is a skill that you just have to be good at to be a gigging musician. Have some fun with it! Get you friends together and take turns reading duets. Make it a hang. It's fun to challenge yourself and see what you can accomplish. How fast can we take this without losing it?? Always remember to look at the part for difficult passages, keep prestine time, look ahead/be aware, and constantly problem solve. Assume something weird is going to happen and don't let it get the best of you. Improving at sight reading is a very obtainable goal that we can all achieve with a little bit of practice.

Alright that does it for this week! Whew that was a lot! If you have a killer sight reading book please reach out and let's add it to the New Materials list. Until next time y'all! ✌🏻

Stay hydrated and read something new today



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