How's your reading?

How’s your reading?

If someone hands me a chart I’ve never seen before and counts it off a little fast, I panic. I'll read through a chart in rehearsal or at a gig that went a little rough, then after taking the chart home I realize how easy it was If only I was more confident. 

Aside from playing trombone for one semester in college (should have never put it down) I’ve always been in the rhythm section, and have never been totally happy with my reading ability. Typically horn players learn to play their instrument looking at notes on a page and are typically good readers. On the other hand, rhythm players mostly learn to play by ear, so are not, for the most part nearly as good. To be clear, I have worked with rhythm players that are great readers because that's what they do. Being a good reader is something that needs to be nurtured.

Even thought my reading could be better, I can write almost anything because I have a moment to figure it out before I put it down finale or on manuscript. I have this little technique that I use when I have trouble counting some rhythm figures. Starting with my index finger and moving through to my baby finger, I count one-e-and-a, for 16ths and It works great.

I took a reading class while I was studying arranging, and just like in writing music you learn to divide the bar into 2 sections, the front half of the bar, and the back half of the bar. In class we would be shown a rhythm figure using quarter notes and eighth notes, and underneath we would be shown a “compressed” version of the same rhythm using eighth notes and sixteenth notes. This helped me a lot with reading through medium tempo r&b tunes on the gig. 

I would equate reading music to reading a book. If your an accomplished reader, you don’t sound out the words as you read through the text, you recognize the word and then read it. Reading music is much the same. You don’t consciously count through each eighth, or six-teeth note as your reading. The beat is obviously there, but you recognize the rhythm and just read it. In popular styles of music there seems to be a limited number of rhythm figures that are just rearranged into different groupings or sequences. There is of course the odd rhythm that pops up now and again. A fast run of 32nd notes, or a 7 note grouping over a quarter note. 

The example below are two of the most popular rhythms in all of popular music. If I clapped them, you would recognize them immediately. The next time you saw them you could clap them just by recognizing what they are. This is how proficient readers do it. It’s learning to recognizing the rhythm figures as opposed to counting the notes through the bar.  


My horn players tell me that to become a good reader you need to read something new everyday. I’ve noticed that the musicians that read well, typically do a lot of gigs that require a certain level of reading ability.

So don’t feel like you have to be a killer reader before you can start composing and arranging music. If you run into problems, your horn players can help you. Use my little "One-e-and-a" trick. Writing will help your reading, but reading something new everyday on your instrument will help you the most. I'm still working on mine.

I would love to hear your expertise on this subject. 
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Fred Stickley Music