Becoming a Nails Sight Reader

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by matt holt, Jul 21, 2018.

  1. matt holt

    matt holt Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 5, 2005
    Cincinnati OH
    Before I start this let me state: I can read decently. I play in orchestras (both classical and musical theater), I've played in big bands, and have been reading music, on some instrument or another, for the majority of my life. So I can read well enough to "fool most of the people most of the time";), and if the music is simple, I'm fine.

    However, anything beyond what you might see in a decent high school jazz band and I struggle with the notes on the page.

    If I have a chance to look it over on my own for bit and work out the details, I'm fine; or if it's a situation where I don't need to play exactly what's on the page, as long what I play works, I can do that. Right now my gigs all fall into one of those two categories, but I know there are opportunities that I'm missing out on because of this issue. I feel like I have spent quite a bit of time working on It, but I haven't seemed to get "over the hump" of being able to sight read as well as I know I need to be able to.

    While I realize there are no magic bullets, I am curious if anyone has been in a similar place, and overcome it. If so, were their any particular approaches or methods that were particularly helpful?

    Tom Lane likes this.
  2. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Columbia SC
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Read everything. Bach two parts, trombone etudes, melodies in bass clef, EVERYTHING you ca get your hands on. Read them like you would read the newspaper- when you're sitting down for breakfast, on the train (sight singing the line), on break from your job. Read EVERYTHING, all the time.
  3. Sam Dingle

    Sam Dingle Supporting Member

    Aug 16, 2011
    Nashville TN
    Read everything you can as said above. sight reading is all about noticing patterns as quickly as possible. I'm the same as you (not to toot my horn). I can sight read almost every musical book I've been given and big band charts up until the doubling with the trombones. Reading out of the omni book is horrible.
  4. Silevesq


    Oct 2, 2010
    You can also take note of what is giving you a hard time when reading. Say the rhythm is based on Brazilian music get some chart with these things in it. Realizing what is giving you a hard time and working on these things might benefit you more in the long run then reading everything without really understanding what to look for. Also make sure you "consolidate?" try to link them to other chart or imply it in other context.

    It is not only a question of reading but understanding what you are reading and to make it more difficult music as many different voices. Just because you can read in a style of music doesn't mean you'll get the vibe of any sight reading you do and this is where reading everything become very important.
  5. I've had the most success when I've concentrated on reading rhythms and mixed that in with reading different styles. That said, I struggle with the same issues.
    oldNewbie likes this.
  6. Carl Hillman

    Carl Hillman

    Jan 1, 2010
    (Disclaimer: I am NOT a nails sight reader.)

    But, I second mathewbrown concerning rhythms. The Louie Bellson books helped me focus on being able to read rhythms, and that's a significant part of the battle.

    I was taught that, when a new piece of music is plunked down in front of you, you look for the big stuff first: key(s), time signature(s), the actual road map (repeats, D.S., coda). Then scan it for range. Knowing the part jumps up or down in a certain spot ideally lets you adjust your fingering position on the fly so you'll be ready for it.

    Keep your eyes moving forward. Try to get to where you're reading a bar or two (or more) ahead of where you actually are. And, this is important, if you miss something, don't get flustered or dwell on it. Just keep plowing ahead.

    For me, sight reading abilities are just like physical chops...they go away if I don't use them.
    Hasty and csrund like this.
  7. My mom, a classical pianist used to keep a sight reading pile, - hard music you try to read and don't dwell on or "practice". Sam Rivers used to write something he knew would be hard to play and then learn it.
    I would get together with other musicians who want to work on it as well.

    I tend to be able to read things that are written well without issue, when I have trouble it is most often because the "composer" doesn't understand orchestration and does not know how to write for the bass. We don't want to be limited by our instrument by any means, we also need to be able to quickly work out the difference between a Xenakis solo and some yahoo that cares more about being a "composer" than they do about orchestration!
    Other times, like with people, food and many other things in life sometimes you and a piece of music just don't get along!
    lurk likes this.
  8. Co.


    Sep 10, 2006
    For classical music sight reading I'd get some books with "beautiful" etudes. With that I mean etudes, that are fun to play, but don't seem to fulfill a specific purpose, like learning staccato or learning rapid trills. I like the Bottesini metodo for that. The book 77 baroque bass lines is also a good one. Random parts from IMSLP.

    For jazz playing, especially big band, I'd practice jazz specific rhythms first. Reading syncopated rhythms naturaly is an essential skill. You can write out all kinds of permutations on your own.
    The occasional unison bebop head is best practiced by practicing bebop heads, I guess.

    A very important skill is transposing in octaves on the spot and reading treble clef as well as bass clef.
    lukaspearse, matt holt and Nashrakh like this.
  9. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    To learn to sightread, you will be at a great advantage if you have thoroughly learned a fair amount of repertoire in a similar style. So in your case, you need to learn more jazz repertoire.
    When I get called to sightread performances of opera, I will try to get the part sent to me on PDF so I can read it on the train or flight in to the concert if possible. If you only get the part as you arrive, any time you can get with the part ahead of the downbeat needs to be used as well as possible to reduce the amount of actual sight reading.
    DrayMiles and damonsmith like this.
  10. geoffbassist

    geoffbassist UK Double Bassist Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jul 17, 2006
    Founder - Discover Double Bass
    My sight reading has been at it’s best when I’m regulally reading new music in a performance setting. It really pushes you forward faster than just working at home, and I guess it’s the same for any aspect of your playing. So keep your eyes peeled for gigs like this. My favourite time was working on a cruise ship where there was new music to read daily. A few months of that had a big affect on my accuracy.

    Of course you should work on the process at home too, but there’s no substitute for playing new music in a live setting.
  11. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    Playing with a community big band helped my reading, but i still struggle with rhythms. I honestly think if you can get the rhythm piece down pat, the rest comes very easy. I need to spend more time on rhythms myself...
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2018
    geoffbassist likes this.
  12. PauFerro


    Jun 8, 2008
    United States
    I am not very good at it either -- I can do it, but I'm slow. But I saw rapid improvement when I started TRANSCRIBING my own songs for publication. There is a free, lighteweight music notation tool - WAY easier than Finale, or MuseScore or others out there -- where you can get past the technology part of it intuitively. The software is Crescendro by NCH Software -- search for it and download it for free. You can play the music back after you enter it into Crescendo to see if you did it right.

    Start transcribing melodies as you hear them in your head, or songs that you have always wanted to play.

    I noticed I was suddenly MUCH better at note reading after I spent some serious time transcribing my original jazz songs into Crescendo. When you get stuck, post your work here and get feedback from people who know -- there are a few of them. Also, there are facebook pages meant to help people transcribe where you might get feedback. I had an arranger helping me when I got stuck (a friend), but others here helped me too -- pointed out problems like too many beats in a bar, improper formatting of the notes within a bar, and wrong rhythms. Trust me, you'll learn quick.

    Another strategy is to get the REal Book and then listen to some of the songs in it, and then try to transcribe the song -- without looking at how its written in the Real Book. Then check your work against the real book. Start with simple songs and then get more complex. You will have your own answer book right there in the Real Book to compare your transcription to, and most of the songs are on YouTube for listening. Start easy so you don't get discouraged. It will really help!
    Evert likes this.
  13. IamGroot


    Jan 18, 2018
    All excellent suggestions above.

    May I suggest in addition to what has already been said...

    1) Isolate the specifific items in your sight reading that cause you problems and drill them hard.
    -- rhythmic elements: sight read without the bass just to get the rhythmic notation right. There are numerous videos out on YouTube to improve this.
    - Key signature. Practice in all the keys you are weak in. For Cb, play Stevie Wonder stuff.

    May i also recommend an electric bass book on Motown's James Jamerson, Standing in the Shadow of Motown, which have several dufficult sight reading exercises from both a rhythmic and key standpoint.

    2 Positions. Good sight readers know instinctively what position to move to based on a given key, chord, note position on the staff (high low) and accidentals present. Its a deep subject but a key one. If asked to play tbe major , minor, minor pentatonic, major pentatonic and chromatic runs for Ab, what position would you start with? When you encounter a passage that gives you problems, think out and notate the position on the sheet music.

    And if you really want a workout on fingering pisitions play some of Bach's violin pieces.
  14. DrayMiles


    Feb 24, 2007
    East Coast
    I seem to have people ask me to read treble clef a lot. I did it recently and was faster than the guitar player. I thank playing rudimentary piano for that. I was surprised that I was able to get it down faster than him. He was a very good guitarist.
  15. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    Can anyone 'splain to me the etymological derivation of this term - "Nails Sight Reader"? Is this a regional term, perhaps? Please clarify.
    (I have never heard this term used before.)
    damonsmith likes this.
  16. Agreed. Very odd phrase yet the meaning is clear as day. Good work if the OP invented it!

    Bob_Ross likes this.
  17. Carl Hillman

    Carl Hillman

    Jan 1, 2010
    What's the meaning of "nail it"?
  18. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    Thanks, Carl.
    Is "Nails Sight Reader" widely used? Or, is it just the OP's creation?
    Just thinking outloud.
  19. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The terms "Nails Sight Reader" and "can read fly **** at 20 paces" are common around my own little backwoods region.
    csrund likes this.
  20. For about 20 years, I ceased orchestral playing and only read lead sheets while playing BG. When I restarted orchestra playing, the two major hurdles were bow technique and sight reading. I had to ramp up the former in order to audition, but it took a long time to regain halfway decent sight reading ability.

    When I'm reading at my best, I find that I'm visually processing maybe four bars ahead of what my hand is actually playing; more or less, depending on the density of the passage. In computer terms, it's like ”filling the buffer.” The more you can cultivate that ability, the more proficient you’ll be at sight reading, IMO.

    Lots of good advice in previous replies: look through/mark your part in advance, with attention to key sigs, tempo changes, dynamics, accidentals, thorny passages, etc. And above all, practice sight reading a LOT.
    Carl Hillman likes this.