The Importance of Reading Music
by Jeff Salem

I would like to discuss the importance of reading music while playing drumset. Throughout the past few months, I worked as the Musical Director and Entertainer on a world cruise. As a performer, 90% of the musical material requires reading. Regardless of the type of chart, it is mandatory that I read and play the material accurately without always having the opportunity to rehearse. Throughout this article, I would like to discuss the necessity of learning to read music, along with some valuable tips on sightreading.

Why Read?

Throughout my teaching practice, I discovered that many students are interested in learning to play by ear. Acquiring a natural feel for rhythm is an important asset, however, it does not fulfill the responsibility of a well-rounded musician. Complicated rhythm patterns will become simplified when you see them written rather than trying to play them by ear. I justify that reading is necessary through experimenting with my own students. I will record a busy drum groove and then observe how long it will take them to figure out the piece without reading. Most of the time they become frustrated spending up to an hour trying to learn the part. The following week I will give them the part written out, which usually takes five to ten minutes for them to learn. It’s really that simple to read and learn the wonderful language of notation.

Tips on Reading Charts

Reading charts is an important skill to practice and understand. If your chart consists of several loose pages, I suggest taping them together. The charts will then be easy to fold. Once you’ve finished taping, concentrate on the outline of the song. I call this “reading the map.” Search for details, including repeat signs, first and second endings and codas. It is crucial to notice every last detail of the music!

When playing a chart, be sure you are on the same page with the other players. Use a standard tune from “The Real Book” as an example. In this book the drum parts are not written out, however, you are given a basic melody score which many instruments could use. It is important to understand the style, which is sometimes listed at the top of the chart, e.g. “Bossa” or “Medium Swing.” Learn and understand these styles of drumming and apply them to the song. It’s always important to know the tempo and the form of the song in advance.

The form of a song is usually represented by capital letters. For example, the section may be identified as the “A” or “B” section. Most common jazz forms are written as AABA. Once you know the form, it is important to identify such things as the number of times you play through the form and the number of solos that will be taken. A great way to teach students the tune and form quickly is to let them listen to the recording a few times, close the chart and have them play at tempo and sing the melody. It might take a few times, but I found this is the quickest and most musical way students will grasp it.

It’s always important to keep your place in the chart throughout the piece. A good exercise for working on this skill is to play a recording of the tune while the students follow along, reading only and not playing. Stop the music after a few bars and see if they know where they are in the song.

The finer details of each chart will probably not come through the first time it is played. If the drum beat and fills are complicated and you feel you can’t cut it the first time around, simplify the music. Focus on sections at a time. It’s important to practice the piece in order to master the music. If drum fills or rim shots in the song are written on many drums and you feel you can’t nail the parts right away, just play that rhythm on the snare. The key is to play the correct notation and follow proper rhythm. I will sometimes take a few important rhythmic patterns and have the students clap them.

It is important to take care of the music. I tell my students to use a pencil and eraser (never use a pen) to make notes on the chart for reference. Also, if you are able to photocopy the chart for yourself, use highliters for marking fills, certain hits, the coda, etc. Remember, keep your eyes wide open, listen closely to all the other musicians including yourself and always have fun throughout your journey!

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Jeff Salem began his career performing wih several local rock, jazz, Latin and tribute acts throughout the Toronto area. Jeff is a freelance writer for Canadian Musician magazine and also maintains a large roster of private students at Drummer's Choice in Brampton, Canada.