Driver’s Seat

Reading Charts

by Mel Lewis

Over the years, I’ve seen too many aspiring big band drummers who simply do not take the time needed to fully develop their reading ability. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many competent young players become very mediocre drummers when presented with a piece of music. Remember, if your reading is not together, you’ll more often than not, find yourself in a playing situation without the necessary confidence to do the job. You’ll be afraid of the chart and this almost inevitably results in a drummer who gets so buried in his part that he actually stops listening to the band. 

A drummer should be capable of reading as well as any other musician in the band and he must be relaxed with his part. Only in this way can he quickly absorb the framework of the arrangement and get on to the much more important business of listening to what’s going on around him.

When you read a part for the first time, you should be listening as much as you’re reading. The second time, you should be listening more than you’re reading. Use the third time to listen even more carefully, and by the fourth play through you shouldn’t be reading at all. By the fourth time, you’ve certainly had sufficient time to absorb the part and get comfortable with it. Of course there are exceptions with parts which may be extraordinarily difficult or complex and which may take somewhat longer to learn. Four times, however, is the rule of thumb for the average chart. More than four is probably an indication that either you’re not listening as carefully as you should, or your reading ability is not sufficiently developed to enable you to get your nose out of the chart sooner.

The transcription below is from the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra recording of Central Park North. The first 30 bars are reproduced from It’s Time, by Mel Lewis and Clem DeRosa by permission of Kendor Music, Inc. and D’Accord Music, Inc. Note the lead trumpet part on the upper staff and Mel’s comments between.


Central Park North

Reading Charts 1

Reading Charts 2

Reading Charts 3