Sight-reading drum charts can be a VERY scary thing, especially if you don’t have a lot of previous experience doing so.
In this article, I’ll offer some of the tricks and techniques that I personally use when sight-reading drum charts.
I’ll break it down into two sections: First, I’ll provide some tips on what to do BEFORE performing the chart, and then I’ll discuss things to think about WHILE you’re playing the the chart.
SECTION 1: BEFORE YOU PLAY THE CHART
STEP 1 - UNDERSTAND THE FORM
ROADMAP - What is the form of the tune? Are there solo sections, and if so, who's soloing? Are there any drum solos? Vamps? Get an idea of the form of the tune ahead of time. This will help you to understand the big picture.
REPEATS - Are there any repeat signs in the music? What about D.C., D.S., or Coda markings? Forgetting to follow these types of markings is one of the most commonly-made mistakes when sight-reading, so be sure to note where these form signs are so you don’t miss them. If you need to, highlight them with a pencil so they stand out more.
ENDING - How does the tune end? Is there a fermata? Does it end with a specific rhythm? Ending the tune wrong can be quite embarrassing, especially if you’ve done a great job up until this point! Be sure to be completely comfortable with how the tune ends before you start it.
STEP 2 - UNDERSTAND CRITICAL MUSICAL INFORMATION
TEMPO - What’s the tempo of the tune? Are there any tempo changes in the music?
CUES - Are there any stops or cues in the music? If so, discuss these things ahead of time with your band mates/leader.
FEEL - Most charts will have some sort of musical information on the feel of the tune (shuffle, funk, swing, etc.). Does this change at all throughout the chart? Be sure to know all styles that you’ll be playing before you begin.
OTHER INFO - These include musical terms written such as ritardandos, accellerandos, dynamics, crescendos, etc.
STEP 3 - LOOK FOR DIFFICULT SPOTS/SECTIONS
Are there any tricky spots in the chart that require a second glance before playing? This might include a tricky rhythmic section, a fast tempo change, a difficult page turn, or a musical cue from another performer (“Piano gives cue for downbeat, etc.”) Make sure you set yourself up for success by isolating these tricky sections before you begin!
STEP 4 -SET UP YOUR CHART EFFICIENTLY
MUSIC STAND - Make sure your music stand is set up at a comfortable angle so that you can comfortably look at the page while moving around the kit. The last thing you want is to NOT be able to play your kit because your neck is uncomfortably turned to the side!
PAGE TURNS - Are there any difficult page turns? If so, try to position the chart in a way that allows you to easily make these page turns. One way to do this is to make a small triangle fold at the corner of the page so you can grab it easier.
SECTION 2: AS YOUR'E SIGHT-READING THE CHART
Okay, you’re ready to begin playing the chart. Take a deep breath, relax, and play with confidence!
STEP 1 - KNOW YOUR PLACE
Always know where you are in the chart. The best way to do this is to keep your eyes glued to the page as you play the chart. As you get more comfortable reading, you’ll be able to look around more, but when you're first starting out, the page is all you should be looking at.
Lack of focus is the number one reason why drummers get lost in the chart. When you’re sight-reading, don’t get distracted by what you hear... just follow and trust the chart!
STEP 2 - KNOW HOW TO INTERPRET THE CHART
Interpretation is how you take what you SEE on the page and turn it into MUSIC. The best sight-readers are the ones who know how to musically interpret what they see. Developing your interpretation of charts is one of the most effective ways to improve not just your chart-reading abilities, but your overall musicianship as well!
I could go into great detail on interpretation, but it’s a bit beyond the scope of this article.
These books are incredible; they have detailed instructions on how to musically interpret drum charts, as well as excellent play-along tracks.
I’ll just give you one important “nugget” here: Anytime you see “longer ensemble notes” written, tend to choose drum sounds that are “longer" (cymbals, etc.). For “shorter ensemble hits” written out, choose shorter drum sounds, such as your snare drum. Rhythmic accuracy is only part of the equation, the bigger goal is to compliment what the other members of your band are doing in a musical manner in your kit.
Again, I strongly recommend that you refer to the books mentioned above for much more detail.
STEP 3 - ALWAYS LOOK AHEAD
Once you become more comfortable chart-reading, you should start focusing on looking further ahead in the music as you play. Many beginning sight-readers will focus their eye on each beat or each measure, but you should instead be looking at longer phrases. This way, you can become PROACTIVE rather than REACTIVE.
When you look ahead, it gives you more time to prepare for what’s coming next, so you can make it easier on yourself to choose more musical decisions!
It’s sort of like driving. If you only look 2 feet in front of you, driving would be very stressful. Driving becomes much easier if you look further ahead… it allows you to plan for what’s coming next.
STEP 4) IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, DON’T STOP
If you make a mistake, whatever you do: DON’T STOP!!
As long as you’re playing solid time and following the form, you’ll be able to recover from any reading mistakes that are made, and your band mates will thank you. If the drummer stops playing, the whole song will crash and burn!
Being able to recover quickly is one of the most important aspects of being a great sight-reader.
REPETITION IS KEY
Do you remember the first time you ever rode a bike without the training wheels? If you were like me, you most likely crashed a few times before you got comfortable enough to zip around the block confidently. The same is true with sight-reading. You will crash a few times, but don’t get discouraged... the only way you’ll get better is by DOING IT!
YOUR ACTION STEPS THIS WEEK:
1) There are a TON of practice play-along books with drum charts. Purchase one of the books mentioned above, or something similar.
2) Go through the SECTION 1 checklist above before you begin playing the chart: understand the form, understand all musical information, look for tricky spots, and set up your chart efficiently.
3) Once you’re ready to play, video record yourself as you sight read the chart for the first time. This will mimic the “performance pressure” that you’d face if you were doing it with an actual band. No matter what… don’t stop.
4) As you’re playing try to follow the SECTION 2 checklist: know your place, interpret the chart, look ahead, and don’t stop.
5) When you’ve finished, listen back to the video. Did you make it all the way through? What did you do well? What could you improve on?
6) Repeat, and repeat again. :)
DID YOU ENJOY THIS ARTICLE?
Thanks so much for reading this week's article! Each week, I select one person from the video "100 RULES FOR DRUMMERS” and write an article based on the three-word rule they offered. My goal is to provide questions, thought experiments, and specific action steps you can take in order to improve both your DRUMMING and LIFE!
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ABOUT DAVE KROPF
Thanks to Dave Kropf for offering his three words of advice for drummers (KNOW YOUR PLACE) and for inspiring me to write this week’s article!
Dave Kroph is the host of "Drummer Talk", the internet's longest-running drumming podcast. As a versatile and well-rounded composer and percussionist for more than 30 years, Dave continually strives to focus on musicianship, expression, and emotion in both compositions and performances. His core belief is that music should always serve the greater needs of the client over the ego of the musician.
With over 100 works to his credit, Dave’s compositional emphasis is on film and commercial music. His expertise ranges from orchestral to electronic music production with his most recent work being featured on CBS Sports’ coverage of the Masters Tournament and the NFL.
You can hear many of Dave’s compositions on his Soundcloud page.
As a percussionist, his skills range from drumset to drumline, and concert to world percussion. His musicianship on drums and vibraphone can be heard on recorded projects from Lillenas Publishing, Inside Sounds, Madison Line Records, and Ardent Studios; and heard in live performances with Donnie Smith, Vicky Beeching, Aaron Strumpel, and Marty Parks.
Dave also has over 21 years of professional musical theater experience covering a broad range of production levels from community theater to professional Summer Stock. Performances range from Footloose to Fiddler on the Roof, and from Into the Woods to I Remember Mama. He maintains rock solid reading competency, and is always sure to play with sensitivity and appropriate dynamics.