Years ago, I went to Norway with the fabulous singer Vanessa Trouble and her band. I was on stage with my double bass in a park. It was a civic ceremony with several people – I didn’t really understand what was going on. Before I knew it, the mayor of Oslo turned to me and indicated that it was time to play (Norway’s) national anthem.
I was the only musician on stage at the time, and I had never heard the song before. I grabbed the sheet music and led a huge crowd of people through the song, using only my double bass.
Thankfully, I had been practicing sight reading daily for several years, and I was able to stay cool and read the music on the spot.
Rewind to a few years earlier. I had just moved to New York, trying my hardest to make it as a professional bass player. I had a great ear, and I made my way through my career playing songs by ear.
I was invited to participate in a nice recording session. I was thrilled, because we really needed the $300 I would receive as a fee. We had a rehearsal, and the bass parts were all written out very specifically. The arrangements were tight, with swift key changes and angular lines- I didn’t stand a chance.
That night after the rehearsal, I got a call from the band leader with the bad news that I was fired from the recording session. Right then and there, I told myself “Never again.” I began practicing sight reading daily, and things turned around significantly for me. By 5 years later, I was doing studio work for TV and movies pretty much on a daily basis.
I feel like I’ve done pretty much every type of gig there is, and I’ve always been very thankful to be able to read music. It’s true that jazz and pop musicians can get by without reading music, but all of the top studio musicians I’ve met are excellent readers.
To work on sight reading, just pick music that you are curious about. I love Baroque music because of the challenging 4-part writing that often requires challenging fingering. The music is nice for the organ, since it is usually written for instruments without a sustain pedal.
One great inexpensive book for practicing sight reading on keyboard is Music for Millions Vol. 37 (or Vol. 17 if you need something easier)
For sight reading bass, I recommend any of Anthony Vitti’s amazing textbooks. There are some awesome funk bass lines in there.
Here’s a song I worked on recently.