How to Sight-Read 55 Big Band Arrangements in Three Days

By Steve Fidyk

Alfred's Ledger Lines Blog

As a professional big band drummer, I often have the pleasure to record the demo tracks for the newly published jazz ensemble music for the Belwin Jazz catalog. Along with sixteen other excellent musicians, the challenge is to perform these charts with no preparation. That means to sight read everything but it must be accurate, clean and sound like you already have rehearsed the music. What’s the rush? In the music business, like most professions, time is money, so we need to do it right the first time. The Belwin Jazz band leader and session producer, Pete BarenBregge, provides us with clean parts and a simple talk down describing how each arrangement is to be played. The session engineer hits record, Pete counts it off and we are sight–reading. In many instances what becomes the “final take” is actually the band’s first run–through. All solos are live as there is no time for over-dubs. The music difficulty ranges from easy grade 1 to advanced grade 5 or 6. The various musical styles include swing, shuffle, jazz-waltz, Latin, ballad, straight-eighth groove and Afro-Cuban to name a few.

Does this sound like a challenging gig? For most professional musicians, sight-reading on the job is a daily occurrence. The majority of live and recorded jazz, music for films and television that you hear was minimally rehearsed. The performance is executed without fail as a result of the ability of the musicians to sight-read, which includes: playing the written notes, articulations and dynamics, interpreting the musical style, and adding nuance to the music. This skill, I believe, can be developed through education, practice, and experience.

A Macro Approach

There are a number of variables that come into play when sight–reading the drum chair. Below are some big-picture concepts and suggestions that might be of value to aspiring students.

(1)  Form! As you look over the drum part for a big band arrangement, begin by looking for the double bar lines which can help outline the different sections of an arrangement.
(2)  Usually, the first four or eight measures is an introduction.
(3)  Next, the melody is stated which is an opportunity to change texture—for example, moving from brushes to sticks or from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal or vice versa or perhaps some other variation.
(4)  The melody is usually followed by the solo section, which often includes background figures played by a section of the band—saxes, trombones or trumpets. You’ll quickly need to determine who is soloing and temper your volume to suit that soloist and then what section has any background figures.
(5)  After the solo section, many charts develop into a shout chorus for the full ensemble, followed by a restatement of the melody.
(6)  Focus on these larger segments of information as you try to weave the beat patterns, fills, articulations, and dynamics through each macro section of the arrangement.
(7)  Dynamics! Jazz ensemble dynamics are ultimately dictated not only by the written notation, but by the drummer. So, scan the chart for dynamic peaks and valleys, and play accordingly.

The Art of Interpretation

My approach when sight–reading is based on how the band responds to my ideas in the moment. In addition to the written rhythms on my part, I pay close attention to the articulation makings notated above the rhythms. These markings give me a sense of how the phrase is going to swing with the horns in the band, and I apply each “long and short” articulation to a corresponding drum or cymbal. For example, a legato tenuto marking above a note dictates a long sound, and a short sound is indicated with a staccato symbol or a marcato (^) rooftop accent. Sometimes arrangers neglect to put articulations on drumset parts. In that case, it helps to consult the score to be sure that the articulations match with those played by the lead trumpet. Some drum parts have ensemble figures written in the staff and sometimes the figures are notated above the staff in cue-size notes—and sometimes a combination. So, listen, react and always look ahead in the chart.

Why Learn to Read?

As a professional musician, it’s business. Sight-reading is another skill—the more you can do as a musician, the more marketable you become. If you want to be a working player in this economy, it’s essential to take whatever gig comes your way, and being able to sight-read can bring the opportunity for more work. I pride myself on being versatile and sight-reading was a very important part of my development. And I most certainly wouldn’t have gotten the call for this session if I didn’t have strong sight-reading skills.

Have fun and make great music!

–Steve Fidyk

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