In this article I share my top tips for electric and upright bassists who are sight reading on gigs. This could be in a theatre production, a musical, a function band gig, recording session, or any concert where you are sight-reading. The ideas I cover are practical things that you can use to play at your best.
Here are my top tips to help you read like a pro!
Before You Get to the Gig
Prepare by listening to any recordings of the music that you can find. You could listen to a recording in the car, on a walk or whenever you have spare time. It’s also worth searching YouTube.
Bear in mind that the arrangement used in the recordings may differ to the one you have to play. However, familiarizing yourself with the music will be a huge help.
What to do When You Get the Parts
When you get the parts mark them neatly using a soft pencil as required. Start with the geography, perhaps the sign for the D.S isn’t clear, or a repeat mark is in an unusual spot?
For tricky passages you can also add fingerings. You don’t need to do this with every note, just enough to keep you on track. For example you may wish to mark a note as played with the open string or a fingering number to help minimize shifts. Unless you actually own the score it’s not acceptable to use anything other than a pencil when marking your parts.
If you are able to look at the score in advance make sure you focus on learning the harder bits.
If the score includes many repeated measures of the same figure consider numbering certain key bars to make it easier. For example, if there are nine bars of a repeated figure I might mark ‘9’ above the final bar of that section, or possibly ‘8’ above the penultimate bar. Seeing these markings on musical phrases that feel strange will give you confidence that you are correct and haven’t miscounted.
Consider how you will manage any awkward page turns in advance. Sometimes you will need to tape pages together or use a second music stand. In some cases you may have to write out a few bars of music from the next page and add them to the bottom of the current page to make the turn easier.
Re-arrange the music on your stand when you are counting rests to avoid doing it whilst you are actually playing.
When You Are Sight Reading
It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to count! The key is to not let your concentration wonder, as before you know it you will be lost! To reassure yourself that you are correct you may wish to mark cues from other instruments, singers or spoken dialogue in the score.
Don’t forget to observe dynamic markings. It’s so easy to get fixated on the pitches and rhythms that you miss the dynamics altogether. Properly observing dynamics is a quick win that is essential if you want to sound like a professional player.
How to Set-Up
Take a music stand light. The room may be well lit at rehearsals, but that doesn’t mean it will be on the gig!
Consider your sight lines on stage. Whenever possible keep the conductor or bandleader in your peripheral vision so you can see him or her without turning your head away from the music stand. If you are playing bass guitar it also helps to keep your left hand in your peripheral vision.
Remember to look up from your music regularly to avoid communication issues. It’s not easy, but try to establish a habit of looking up from your music, especially if you think there’s a problem.
Sight Reading Tips
Try to read ahead. This takes time to develop, but its good to be reading as far ahead on the score as you can.
Make a mental note when you pass a point in the score that you will have to return to later like the sign in a 'D.S al Coda'.
Keep your focus on what’s coming next and don’t dwell on any errors until after you stop playing.
If you don’t already play gigs that require sight-reading I would recommend you do so. It's an amazing feeling to be involved in a large team project like a theatre production. In addition to the musicians you meet there are actors, stage crew etc. It’s a great social scene and can be a lot of fun as well as musically rewarding.
(Photo by Matt Sim)