A number of young drummers regularly take lessons and pour through drum books. However, these same drummers, in spite of lessons and hard work, feel apprehensive when asked to sight read. Why is this such a problem even for well trained young drummers?
First of all, young drummers, when practicing reading exercises, tend to stop playing whenever they make a mistake. Although this is a natural reaction, you cannot stop when playing a TV show or a live concert. The drummer must keep playing, in spite of mistakes, if the band is to stay together.
One method to help overcome the tendency to stop is to do the following: Practice with a metronome. Set a reasonable tempo, look over the page to be sight read, then start playing from the upper left-hand corner. Do not stop playing, no matter how many mistakes you make, until you have completed the page. The metronome will help you stay in tempo. Look back over the page and practice over all the rough spots. Re-set the metronome and start playing again from the beginning. Play all the way through the page without stopping, even if you make mistakes. This is one way to train your eyes to keep moving. Remember, if the drummer stops, the band stops and the show stops.
Another method is to set the metronome at a reasonable tempo and play through the page in your mind. Just look at the notes and sing the rhythms out loud. If this feels uncomfortable, just follow the music with your eyes and sing the rhythms in your mind. This is also a good method because it trains the eyes without worrying about sticking problems. Select a book for sight-reading that concentrates on rhythms as opposed to rudiments, rolls and other techniques. Books dealing with rudiments, drumset, or other technical problems are good practice materials. They are not always the best sight-reading materials. Books that feature “sight reading for all instruments” (rhythms without rolls, flams and so forth) are best for practicing reading.
Write out some short solos concentrating on the rhythms. Even four or eight measure solos are a good learning aid. Once you have struggled to write out certain rhythms correctly, you will never forget them. Write out the rhythms you have most difficulty with. If you get hung up with sixteenth notes, write some exercises using sixteenth notes. If you have trouble with triplets, write some triplet exercises. Writing out solos and exercises is great eye training, and an excellent way to develop an understanding of rhythms.
One of the problems encountered by drummers with little experience is reading music in a band. They are not used to reading and counting while hearing other parts being played around them. The sound of other instruments playing contrasting rhythms tends to confuse the young drummer and causes him to lose his place. One way to overcome this is to practice duets. There are a number of duet books available and it’s a great form of practice. If you have a friend near your age and ability to practice duets with, it can be a lot of fun to practice reading. Playing your part while someone next to you plays a contrasting part is a great way to improve your sight-reading. But don’t stop playing when you make a mistake, unless you get totally lost. Duet practice will help to develop concentration and precision. It will prepare you to sight read effectively in a band.
Now we arrive at one of the tougher forms of reading for young drummers: the big band chart. The parts may be over-written, or give you almost no information. For example, you may look at a chart that shows one measure of eighth notes and several hundred repeat signs. However, above the measure of eighth notes is written the following instruction: “Play with a jazz, bossa-nova, Latin rock feel and improvise fills.” This is an exaggeration. However, to drummers who routinely deal with badly written drum parts, it’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think.
The opposite type of part is what’s sometimes referred to as a “drum-melody” part. The arranger writes so many cues that if the drummer plays the entire part as written, he will sound as if he’s trying to play the melody. Most drum parts are somewhere between these two extremes. However, you must learn to add accents if needed and delete others, even though they may be on the part. When in doubt, check the lead trumpet part. Most big-band accents coincide with the trumpet part. Don’t play every note with the lead trumpet; play the parts that need accenting or emphasizing. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Keep good time and hit the big notes.”
One approach to deciding what to play and what to leave out starts at rehearsals. The first time through the chart, just keep time and watch your part while really listening to what’s going on around you. Do this a couple of times. Make some notes on the part (with a pencil, not a pen) to remind yourself of the important kicks or accents. After you have done this, you are now ready to interpret the chart. The leader may point out phrases that need accenting and this is also a help. Remember, what you leave out can he as important as what you play.
One last thought: A big band drum chart is a guide, or mini-score for the drummer. It is not an exact part to be played as is. It is there as an aid. It should not restrict your ability to listen, or to think in a musical way. Remember, if sight-reading is a problem, there are only two primary reasons. Either you haven’t done much of it, or you are not using an effective approach. Change your approach. Try some of the ideas in this article, and keep trying new ones until you find one you’re comfortable with.