How important is knowing the songs?

HeadForTheSticks

Junior Member
I was hoping to get some feedback, shared experiences or opposing views.
I'm in an original R&B soul band and I sub for a couple cover bands. Sadly I never took the time to learn how to read music and basically everyone in the bands I play for are either well schooled in music theory or have a very good understanding of music theory. I can really appreciate the skill and feel this is something I need to learn. That being said (this is the part where I fear getting beat up on here. :) I noticed two of the cover bands that I sub for the members don't seem to take the time to actually learn the material. Even the simplest tunes that these guys grew up listening to and playing require them to be glued to an iPad or sheet music...on stage playing songs that they play out nearly every weekend. I'm the sub, I was recently sent a list of 40 or more songs 10 days before the gig to learn. I felt like I knew the songs better then some of the permanent members. Especially the bass player who seemed to rely completely on sight reading and felt like he was reacting to the chord changes slightly behind in time. I'm definitely not trying to toot my own horn (although it reads that way even to me) but I've done several gigs with these bands comprised of some of the same members and they rarely seem to have memorized the majority of the material. I feel like it often hurts the feel of the music and the conviction in which its delivered when they are so dependent on the sheet music and not in the moment. I sure if they were better at sight reading this won't be an issue. Long rant, sorry! any thoughts? have you experienced this? Am I out of line in my thinking?
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
I'd say knowing the arrangement/tempo/key is Job 1. After that, it's all execution. But if you don't know the arrangement, that's a big inhibitor to the execution. I need to know what the next song section is well before time so I can handle the transition gracefully.

The thing is....you have zero control over how the others do their job. As I see it there are 3 choices. Either you work around the problem, (shut up and play) try and change their problem (good luck with that, or at least voice your concerns), or move on. Only you know best what you want to do there.

This is what makes bands hard, people not pulling their weight.
 

PorkPieGuy

Platinum Member
No, you are not out of line for your thinking. I play with people that HAVE to have notes (heck, my wife who plays bass is one of these people). As we are playing music, so many of them are staring a hole into their iPads. In addition, we have backing tracks and a click track pumping through our IEMs too. Even though we are playing in time and are playing the right notes, I feel it comes across as sterile, and as really not having any "soul" to it. I'm sure people in the audience don't care, and I think just about everyone else who is playing doesn't feel this way, but I do. I think that it's simply because I've played with musicians, both past and present, who play without any sort of written music at all. It's not that the music we do at church is bad by any stretch. I'd say we do a fairly good job, but to me there's no real "feel" to it.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
No, you are not out of line for your thinking. I play with people that HAVE to have notes (heck, my wife who plays bass is one of these people). As we are playing music, so many of them are staring a hole into their iPads. In addition, we have backing tracks and a click track pumping through our IEMs too. Even though we are playing in time and are playing the right notes, I feel it comes across as sterile, and as really not having any "soul" to it. I'm sure people in the audience don't care, and I think just about everyone else who is playing doesn't feel this way, but I do. I think that it's simply because I've played with musicians, both past and present, who play without any sort of written music at all. It's not that the music we do at church is bad by any stretch. I'd say we do a fairly good job, but to me there's no real "feel" to it.
I will never understand how say a Vinnie can sight read....and play with feeling. People who read their parts...normally don't register with me on an emotional level. I never want to read on a gig, I just don't. That would involve being in my conscious mind. Not my goal while playing.

To the OP: No one is 100% the way you want them to be, no one. I just had to leave a band because it was embarrassing to me to play songs the at the speed we played them. I had to go. They weren't going to be doing any changing, and I couldn't shut up and play anymore.
 

GruntersDad

Administrator - Mayor
Staff member
If subbing learn the songs as best you can and let the rest of the band behave however they want. You won't be there often, nor responsible for how things turn out other than your parts. When I was younger, I used to frequent a particular club that was known for their 6 day a week music, and normally good bands. One week however a young band showed up with music stands on stage as if a high school concert band. Not good. But since you won't be there often, roll with it.
 

alparrott

Platinum Member
It's really interesting to me to see the debate between on-book and off-book. As someone who came up in classical music as a woodwind player, and still gets calls to do theater and related gigs with full scores, I can tell you that going off-book is not an option in many genres of music performance. And I don't think that folks who are experienced readers lose anything in the emotion of the piece. But that assumes an experienced reader - i.e. someone who does it for their job all the time. Most folks in rock bands don't fall into that category.

On pick-up gigs where I have minimal rehearsal time with the rest of the band, but the arrangements are completely set in stone, I will make a chart or a series of notes to refer to before starting the song.And even from there, if there's an ad-lib, I should be able to catch it.

I have been in bands where one or more members are stuck on-book, with varying degrees of success. But I also see a number of very prominent bands using confidence monitors on stage for lyrics (notably, Geddy Lee was using one for the last several Rush tours).

*If* it results in consistently better performances than without, I don't have a problem with someone being on book. If it becomes a detractor to the performance or the person in question can't read charts or music well enough to make it work, but then says "well, I can't remember all these parts"... I think that can be a red flag.
 

WhoIsTony?

Member
It would literally take you 30 minutes to learn to read basic rhythms

doing so would never be detrimental to your musicianship or communication

there is absolutely no reason to not learn to understand the written language of music

what you do with it is up to you ...


playing poorly while reading on a gig has nothing to do with reading ... it has to do with being a shit musician

two pieces of advice

take a half hour and learn to read ...

seek better musicians to play with

of course knowing the tune is of utmost importance ... why would anyone think otherwise

this is an exercise I do with my students all the time

I'll play the rhythm of something like jingle bells or happy birthday on a pad without singing it and ask them to play it back ... 99% of the time they can't even begin to repeat what I just played ...

we try that a few times in a row

I then play the same rhythm while singing the melody then BOOM! ... they play it flawlessly

repeating what you are familiar with is very basic human conditioning ... check out baby shows ...

still absolutely no excuse for not knowing how to read ...

cue the "Buddy couldn't read" crowd ;)
 

mikyok

Platinum Member
I will never understand how say a Vinnie can sight read....and play with feeling. People who read their parts...normally don't register with me on an emotional level. I never want to read on a gig, I just don't. That would involve being in my conscious mind. Not my goal while playing.

To the OP: No one is 100% the way you want them to be, no one. I just had to leave a band because it was embarrassing to me to play songs the at the speed we played them. I had to go. They weren't going to be doing any changing, and I couldn't shut up and play anymore.
+1

I wouldn't want to watch a band that was sight reading songs that don't need to be sight read. Most pop songs are easier to learn from listening to the vocals and guitar rather than drums.

If you're performing you're usually entertaining as well.
 

GetAgrippa

Platinum Member
I agree with alparrott-plenty of excellent musicians who sight read all the time-play fantastic with all kinds of emotions and feel. But those who don't I get the "it sounds mechanical" comments-it does. A good sight reader isn't focusing on reading but playing with emotions and feel-if you aren't you are concentrating on reading so it does sound mechanical-like grade school band learning a new song-ouch. I wish I had that gift-Vinnie Colaiuta really has it-I seem to remember some story by Zappa of Vinnie eating sushi with one hand, sight reading and nailing the song with his only free hand?? I can barely read, reading and listening same time-plugs it in quicker though (and my wife who reads well). So if I have to read it's just to learn the song so I can memorize and play it. TBH I always thought my playing was faster than my brain could think to sight read-wait a minute while I quit laughing at my own stupidity ROFL!!! I use to memorize everything but as I aged I did have to make up my own cheat sheets. I wish I had taken more interest and time to sight read music better-it did cause me to lose gigs (feel like it set me in my place-I'm not a real musician but I can do a good job faking it lol). Yeah really it is an insecurity-like living in a foreign country and I don't know how to read and write.
 

brentcn

Platinum Member
any thoughts? have you experienced this? Am I out of line in my thinking?
Don't blame the method. It's not the reading; it's who is doing the reading.

There are musicians who are great at reading a chart, and can deliver a quality performance while doing it. It takes a lot of practice, and it's usually something you go through when studying music in a high school big band, or at a university. Knowledge of the style plays a role here.

But for the average Top 40 gig? Maybe if you're a sub, or if it's been a few weeks since you played the tunes, you'd read a chart. But it sounds like that band is being lazy about it.

Especially the bass player who seemed to rely completely on sight reading and felt like he was reacting to the chord changes slightly behind in time.
If someone sounds like they're reading, when they're reading, then some personal practice/preparation/memorization is definitely in order. You can play dumb and say "hey you sound great! so, we're both pretty new to these tunes, huh?" "Oh, you play these tunes every week? Huh."

Blame the player, not the act of reading charts.
 

WhoIsTony?

Member
+1

I wouldn't want to watch a band that was sight reading songs that don't need to be sight read. Most pop songs are easier to learn from listening to the vocals and guitar rather than drums.

If you're performing you're usually entertaining as well.
people who work all the time commonly read charts

almost every player I work with travels with an iPad
 

MrPockets

Gold Member
I will never understand how say a Vinnie can sight read....and play with feeling. People who read their parts...normally don't register with me on an emotional level. I never want to read on a gig, I just don't. That would involve being in my conscious mind. Not my goal while playing.
1. So I guess you don't enjoy classical music or big band jazz?

2. If you read music enough you don't have to think too hard about it letting your mind have more bandwidth for other things.

I read charts every time I play for the praise band at my church. I'm not reading chords or even the specific notes, just the patterns, repeats, codas, and arranger notes. I assume Vinnie is doing the same. Probably glances here and there as a safety net.

I don't get people who think you can't play with gusto and read music at the same time. I see it happen regularly.
 

oldskoolsoul

Silver Member
I think there is also a little a psychological effect..

The fact that someone sees a drummer reading while playing maybe gives a person the feeling that the drummer is playing without 'feeling/emotion', while maybe if someone would only hear the drummer playing (while the drummer is reading), nothing would be noticed regarding that..
 

mikyok

Platinum Member
people who work all the time commonly read charts

almost every player I work with travels with an iPad
I'm talking about bog standard pop stuff, just how I learn I guess. If you're a full time working drummer who hasn't heard the song before then totally agree I'd be the same :)

We all have ipads too, couldn't use it on stage having to sing and play at the same time.
 

eric_B

Senior Member
I think it depends on the band, the genre and the setting. For either one it can be acceptable and / or common.

However, another aspect is the interaction with the public. I prefer musicians communicating with the audience instead of looking at an iPad or music book all the time. But that also relates to the genres of music I like watching.

BTW: I can read notes but not fluent enough to perform at my best so I will learn the songs I will be playing (either on drums, guitar or keys). And I kind of expect the same from the others, be prepared.
 

WhoIsTony?

Member
I think you guys are misunderstanding what a chart is

when you see these bands they are not sight reading ... as you would see in an orchestra or symphony

they are reading charts ... which does not require constantly staring at an iPad or paper

it is simply the changes and sometimes a melody line

this should not happen if you are playing rehearsed material with a band you're actually IN ... this takes place mostly with working guys who deal with a large catalog of tunes like 6 days a week with many different bands

for drummers 99% of the time the chart is simply for you to know where to start and where to stop ... nothing more ... aside from possibly the form if you are not very familiar with the tune

I prefer homemade charts to say, piano charts

my charts often look like this as opposed to something you would see in a Real Book

if you see someone sight reading an actual transcription of a song on a rock , pop, or jazz gig there is a major issue at hand... like major ...

run for the hills

 

WhoIsTony?

Member
Kenny Aronoff charts everything, and I don't think anyone would call him mechanical or lacking feel.
charting is a fantastic way to learn a tune you are not familiar with

very often I'll chart a tune then not need the chart when playing because the charting itself allowed the changes to absorb

this happens often on record dates

we will run through a tune I've never heard before ... all the musicians will run down a chart of their own style ... then you get under the mics and play it

most of the time when this happens the chart will be on the stand but I don't even look at it because of the charting session that just took place in the control room
 

alparrott

Platinum Member
Thanks for clarifying the waters I muddied by bringing up sheet music, Tony :)

Depending on the gig, I will use sheet music, charts, notes, or go without a net:

- For theater gigs and classical work, I have sheet music in front of me. By the time the actual performances come around, I use it for reference, not sight-reading, and for a less complex show, I often can be most of the way off book by closing night.

- For a short-notice gig or sub, I will often have charts like Tony's, that takes up at least part of a page. As he mentioned, just charting the song can help you learn it and then the chart is just for reference during the performance.

- For a more-rehearsed gig with music I'm not as familiar with, I'll have an expanded setlist with tempos, keys, and one or two lines of notes about the feel, any stops or breaks, or what I'm using on the song (sticks, rods, brushes, etc.)

- For most of my rock gigs, I use a setlist and scrawl notes on it only if I need them.
 

Dr_Watso

Platinum Member
I thought this was a joke.

If you don't want to chart stuff and read charts, you're going to need to know the songs and song forms. If you can legit read music and you get actual sheets for the songs that can be a stand in, but...

I guess you could be that guy who just plays the same 3 beats to every song and switches every 4 or 8 measures but then you'll be that guy.
 
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