Friday, April 28, 2006

Sight Reading at the Piano


I had a long running battle with some hard nose teachers on an Internet newsgroup several years ago. They made it quite clear that there was absolutely no room in their book for anyone who cannot sight read well. Guess that leaves me out because although I am a concert trained pianist and a commercial performer by trade for over forty years, my sight reading skills have never been very good. I do it better than the average pianist but that's because I've been at it a lot longer. And if I've been working a job where it's required that I sight read a good bit, after a couple of weeks I get in the groove and am much better than usual at it. So my contention is this:

Living in the United States, we are both going to go to Chicago from Los Angeles. You're going to take the direct route via Denver, Colorado and I'm going to go by way of Phoenix, Arizona. It's going to take me a couple of days more to get there than you but who cares? It's not important for me to get there quickly, it's just important that I GET there.

I would think that you can see the analogy right away. We're both going to learn the same piece of music and memorize it for performance purposes. (NOTE: We memorize for performance simply because it is easier to play without the music) Because of your better sight reading skills, you are going to learn it faster than I do. So what? Eventually we're both going to perform the same piece of music in public from memory. What difference does it make whether you learn it and memorize it in ten days or ten weeks? The proof of the effort comes from the PERFORMANCE, not the learning procedure.

The howls of rage from several members of the newsgroup were deafening. They contended that there was absolutely no room in the business for someone that didn't learn to sight read well. In their mind, sight reading well was imperative to being a good musician. I guess the same principle should apply to anyone playing basketball - you're no good unless you can play as well as Michael Jordan. That is patently absurd! I dropped out of the newsgroup and have not been back.

Let me tell you about someone who was a good sight reader. I was a freshman at the University of Notre Dame and either volunteered or was elected to turn pages for the accompanist of a hot shot baritone who was giving a concert on campus, probably because I was one of the few in the music department that had the white tie and tails outfit. She came in about ten minutes before show time and talked to the star of the show about a few notes she had made in the margins of the music on the plane.

When we started, I was standing next to her thinking that when she got to the end of the next to last stave on the second page, I would put my hand up to the music, get ready to turn the page and do so a measure or two before the end of the line. There were three staves (lines) of music to go when she said "Turn the page". I was dumbfounded. I said "Ma'am?" "TURN THE PAGE!" So I turned the page and watched in amazement as this woman continued to play the three lines that had been on the previous page FROM MEMORY! When there were three lines left on the next page, I put my hand up, looked at her, and she nodded her head. So I turned the page. This went on through the whole two hour concert.

When it was over, I told her I had never seen anything like that before. She said that it was a special talent that she had worked very hard to develop. Because of her ability and talent and hard work, she had earned a reputation as being someone who could play it right the first time and every time. It also had made her a very highly paid accompanist. Anytime someone got sick and couldn't make a concert, they knew she was dependable and could get it right. If she was available, no one hesitated to hire her. She was also in very high demand for concerts where people knew about her talent. I asked her if she had ever played the music that she played for this concert. She said "I think I played a couple of them about ten years ago." Mind Boggling!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is true sight reading. I don't have that talent so why worry about it? When I go on a job to perform for some event, I play approximately 2,000 tunes from memeory. At that point in time, does it really matter how long it took me to learn any of them? I don't think so.

Here's a little side note. The sight reading talent is not very common. Those who can do it usually end up in the major recording studios in Nashville, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York etc. The reason is very simple. The last I heard, recording studio rates for musicians were about $750.00 for a three hour session. If they go into the fourth hour, it's automatically another $750.00. If you have an orchestra of thirty musicians, the basic rate is $22,500. 00 for the first three hours. If the musicians can't cut it and get it right in the first three hours, add another $22,500.00 to the basic rate. This is truly a good example of how time is money! The better sight readers the musicians are, the better shot the producers have at keeping the cost down.

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