Friday, May 02, 2008

My UNT Degrees Came In Handy Tonight

I received both of my music degrees from the great program at the University of North Texas. In the jazz area, one of the hallmarks of that program is that it graduates people with the ability to sight-read (for the non-musician, that means to play a piece correctly when looking at it for the first time).

(And how did it get that name? With the exception of Braille, sight is always used when reading. It's not like listening to a piece of music for the first time is called ear-hearing...)

The tryouts for UNT's famous Jazz Lab Bands are almost completely built on sight-reading; you walk into a room and see three or four music stands in front of you, each with a piece of music on it (in different styles--swing/bebop, ballad, Latin or funk). You are then asked to read each piece in succession (and the one on the fourth stand, usually an insanely hard Cannonball Adderley transcription, was often reserved only for those who had done well on the first three). There was one additional audition for those who desired a "jazz chair"--the one that played most of the solos in a typical big band chart (at UNT, that's lead tenor, second trombone and fifth trumpet). That jazz audition was factored in with your reading score, but otherwise, reading ruled the day.

This actually is a pretty good system. When it was imposed, the famous touring big bands were starting to decline, so quite a bit of the work available to musicians was in the studios, playing backing tracks for pop performers or recording jingles (TV and radio commercials). Studio time is expensive, and studio musicians are expensive too, so having finely-honed sight-reading skills was imperative. In most cases, the tune or jingle would be played twice--once to check for copying errors, and the second time to actually lay down the track. Then you move on to the next tune and get those expensive studio musicians and techs out of there as soon as possible.

It also works well because, with the tryouts being exclusively sight-reading, there's almost bound to be several players who are great soloists but can't read well (yet), which means that good soloists will be dispersed throughout the system. After all, if the Nine O'Clock (the "bottom" band of the collection) had both the weakest readers and the weakest soloists, who would want to go hear them? As the onetime director of the Nine, I was keenly aware of that fact. But the cool thing was, I was blessed with several great soloists in my band--my lead alto player in the fall was a grad student--who just needed work on their reading. When we weren't preparing for concerts, we would read chart after chart, and it paid off: In the spring, that alto player, along with two freshman trumpeters, moved up to the Five O'Clock. (One of those trumpeters would later make the One O'Clock--on piano. There was--and still is--a lot of that going on at UNT as well.)

So what does all this have to do with tonight? Well, there have been many occasions in the past where I have felt blessed to have had that UNT education, with its emphasis on sight-reading. This week, I was called to sub in a big band that one of my friends put together; a tenor player had bailed on him at the last minute. There was at least going to be a quick run-through an hour before the gig (and I'd played, or even directed, some of the tunes before), but otherwise, I'd be going in cold.

(I should mention that there are plenty of professional big bands out there who come in and sight-read entire gigs every time they get together; ironically, they're known as "rehearsal bands," even though the performance is the rehearsal. What was unique about tonight was that I was coming in unrehearsed to a band that had been working on the music for a while.)

The gig wasn't exactly in my backyard--45 minutes away in good traffic, so I allowed myself an extra half-hour for Friday afternoon rush hour. I even decided to be smart and avoid downtown Dallas, looping around to the south. But little did I know that two 18-wheelers got into a wreck that completely closed down I-20 in the direction I was traveling (and of course, the backup didn't start until after it was too late to get off the freeway). They ended up funneling all four lanes down to the following exit ramp and then making us turn onto a two-lane road (which was not designed for the number of vehicles that had suddenly been thrust upon it). Fortunately, Kev the Walking MAPSCO knew where that road went, and the trip went fine after that, but it meant that I made it for my 7:30 gig at about 7:10.

I did fine on that gig, the only hitches being if repeats were added or deleted without my predecessor writing it down on the chart. I was amused by the fact that we played Gordon Goodwin's "Count Bubba," because the previous time I had played the second tenor part actually was sight-reading, also because of filling in for someone at short notice. (I should mention that it's perhaps even more challenging to read a different part of a chart you know well; the rhythms are usually the same, but the notes are quite different from what you're used to, and second tenor parts in particular are known for having awkwardly-moving lines to fit the harmony.)

So I thank my lucky stars for my UNT education once again. And I hope nobody else who reads this was stuck in any of this afternoon's mess; the traffic reporters were saying that it was almost easier to name the freeways that didn't have major wrecks on them. Hooray for the weekend...

UPDATE: This post has been cited in a scholarly fashion in the Wikipedia entry on sight-reading. My brief, non-scholarly thoughts on same are here.

No comments: