Posts Tagged ‘Sight Reading’



July 26, 2017

20170726_104454.jpgI’m not very good at practicing.

I remember when I was just starting to look into the idea of being a musician. I began to realize that there were these different facets to playing proficiently. There were some people who could play by ear. For these people, music just seemed to happen on command. Then there were these other people who could play anything you put in front of them the first time they saw it. This was a different kind of fluency. They didn’t often happen in the same person. Both of these skills seem superhuman to the non-musician, but even then I had this sense that both of these skills were probably obtainable by practicing.

I must have been thinking about the two skills seriously, because I have a memory of asking my band director Mr. Jeske which was more important: being able to play by ear or being able to sight read. My director hedged; both were important. But he added that working musicians needed to be able to read.

At that point I knew how to read a lead sheet; even a lead sheet with complicated chords. In fact, my ability to read a lead sheet allowed me to pretend to be a much better pianist than I actually was; people could throw music in front of me, and I could get them a decent approximation of what was on the page, only on my terms, at my technical level. In retrospect, this was a sign I was more cut out to be a composer. I had not been a particularly good piano student. I would start fascinating discussions with my teacher to delay the inevitable revelation that I had not put in the time to learn how to play the music I was assigned. The secret that I didn’t really know how to play the correct way was a shame known only to myself and my longsuffering teacher Ellen Southard. Everyone else thought I was pretty good.

At one point, I played a Schumann piece in a master class at the local community college. As I recall, I made a hash of it. My playing was stiff and frightened; I was worried I would miss the chords in the jumping left hand, and my fears were well founded. Those jumps weren’t in my muscle memory. When I finished, Frederick Moyer, the kind and brilliant concert pianist who was in town to play Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto asked me what kind of music I liked to play. Perhaps he sensed that there was a musician hiding in me who was at that moment out of his depth. I said that I liked to play jazz out of a fakebook. He asked what appealed to me about that, and I said that I liked the freedom to play difficult things when I felt I could accomplish them and to alter my pace when I felt I couldn’t. He shrewdly pointed out that classical musicians do that too. They simply disguise their necessary tempo alterations as artistic choices. The audience laughed. I think he probably was trying to tell me that musicians all face the same kinds of problems. Jazz is not really a place to hide from technical problems, and classical music is no place to hide from personal expression. I don’t think I caught his meaning. My takeaway was that I might not have what it takes to tackle classical repertoire. Later that night I would get hopelessly lost in rehearsal playing 4th horn in the orchestra that accompanied him.

I started school as a voice major, then changed majors and schools to pursue composition. I’ll pick up the narrative at the age of 20 or so, when it became clear to me that to be taken seriously as a musician, or even to hold down a job as a working musician in any way, I would have to learn to sight read. So I went to the library and checked out a stack of books a couple feet high, brought them back to a practice room and played straight through them without stopping to fix anything. I then brought the books back, checked out more, and repeated the process. Within a year or so, I was able to crash through quite a bit of music in a halfway convincing manner. Not long thereafter, I started accompanying a voice studio. I recall my deep embarrassment when one student was a better pianist than I was and noted that I was not playing the page correctly. If I was going to be paid to accompany, I would have to play better than the singers. Somehow I managed to get a job playing cocktail piano at a restaurant where the waiters sang arias and musical theatre songs for bored travelers waiting to catch the next flight out of San Francisco. That was its own invaluable education.

I had been fortunate enough to stumble across situations where people were patient as I learned to read as quickly as I could, in high stress situations. So when I took my first job music directing a show for kids, I floundered a little, but I didn’t make a fool of myself, and more importantly, I didn’t need to spend hours in the practice room to get the show under my fingers. I knew what the notes meant the first time I saw them. But that doesn’t mean I could play them all. There was a new kind of curse: I could see exactly what the composer wanted the first time. If I couldn’t do what the composer wanted, that was too bad. It was as good as it was going to be the very first time I played it. I still hadn’t learned how to practice technique. I had only learned to practice my sight reading.

Incidentally, if you are not a good sight-reader, this is how to become one: Read a whole lot of music, as many kinds as you can get your hands on, and play it at a moderate tempo, never stopping to fix anything. Stopping to fix blunts the urgency of looking ahead and getting that information approximated very fast. You want to activate the part of your brain that decodes it quickly and sees 2 or 3 measures ahead. Additionally, the sound of your inevitable uncorrected mistakes will bother you so much, it will act as a kind of immediate and painful punishment. This will motivate you to be more observant next time. Pretty soon your brain will have sorted out what to look for, and how to find it fast.

These are skills the world needs from a musician, particularly a collaborative musician. The world does not want to hear you stop and figure out a passage. It needs you to get to the end of the measure with everyone else, preferably with an eye left over to cast a sidelong glance at the conductor.

But recently I spent many hours in the studio, recording a project that was really right at the edge of my playing ability. If you’ve ever spent any time in the studio, you know that it brings into sharp contrast the hard facts about your playing. They can do magical wonders with pro-tools, but they need something to start with. The studio is in some ways the opposite of the rest of the world. You will stay here until we get it right, and it will cost someone a lot of money if you get it wrong. 

I know the basics about how to practice: Play it slow. Too slow, really. Find a fingering that works. Play it every single time with that fingering. Be expressive. Find the meaning of the phrasing and incorporate it. Don’t let your mind turn off. Be engaged. Take a break when you can’t stay engaged. Memorize it if possible. Gradually increase the tempo at increments so small you can’t tell the difference. Master musicians often really don’t ever play it up to tempo until the gig is upon them. That’s terrifying, but the greats trust that the slow practice will get them what they need.

It’s kind of like Tai Chi, something I have only a tiny amount of experience with from a vocal intensive I took one Summer in High School. The movements are very slow and fluid. You are learning how your body and your balance work and interrelate. There is an aspect of the discipline where you would actually use the movements in self defense, but that’s not how the practice works on a daily basis. Technical practice on an instrument is slow and exploratory, not a contact sport.

Like everybody else, I instinctively want to increase the speed the very moment I find myself able to play it correctly. I suppose everyone is like this. Then when we increase the speed, we lose the fingering, or we improvise a new fingering on the fly, we barely make it through, we miss the point of the phrase, we become frustrated. We lose our focus and mindlessly bang out the phrase. But we console ourselves: “Nobody will notice”, we think. “Listen to how fast I’m playing it!”

Yesterday morning, before I went back into the studio for one final round of fixes, I had an interesting thought:

Musical practice is like spiritual practice. 

Normal life asks you to think and act quickly. Especially in our modern world. What’s that phrase I’m seeing everywhere? Life Comes At You Fast, generally followed by two contradictory tweets that reveal a sudden change in circumstance. People around you don’t want to wait while you figure your responses out. That’s like sight reading. Being a functioning adult means you need to know how to talk to people and speak intelligently and with humor no matter what happens. You have to know how to read a room and how to adjust your words and actions to avoid offense and to have a productive interaction with other people. Life is like chamber music.

But getting along with people and being productive is only one part of your life. Spiritual practice takes more time. Spiritual practice is the cultivation of the kinds of things you aren’t automatically going to do. Just like choosing your best way to get through a passage, spiritual practice is how you train yourself to behave with kindness toward people with whom you disagree. It’s training yourself to question your self-righteousness, to have courage to speak when others might disagree, to have the grace to disagree with kindness. And just as in my piano practice, I have the tendency to pass myself to the next level too early, wrongly assuming I have this tempo figured out. “Nobody will notice”, I think. “Listen to how quickly and wittily I responded.”

The spiritual practices that are a part of my religious tradition, like prayer and occasional fasting, reading, reflection, giving, among many others, are a kind of slow-motion living, where I can discover the tiny habits I have picked up that impede my playing in my daily life and correct them. It takes discipline and patience to incorporate that kind of work into your schedule and into your life. But the human experience is empty at the constant breakneck speed of the 21st century. You have to slow it down.

I think total musicianship requires a multifaceted approach aimed at quick thinking and also deep, transformative practices. So do our lives. Without a determination both to listen and live in the moment and to pursue deeper growth, we’ll miss out on the full spectrum of life and musical expression.