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The Bass Player’s Book Club #2: Reading

Have you ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of the bass player’s book club focuses on some…

Have you ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of the bass player’s book club focuses on some of my favourite books for developing your reading skills and some strategies for using them with maximum efficiency in order to improve your sight reading as quickly as possible.

This post is not meant to debate the relative merits of TAB vs. notation. It might seem odd for someone who runs a bass transcription website to say it, but I don’t actually believe that taking music in ‘by eye’ is the best way to do things. It is, however, very useful in a number of situations when you need to communicate musical ideas quickly. I also believe that being able to read is an integral part of being a well-rounded musician; people seem to be happy to nod along when someone trots out the very tired ‘music is a language’ analogy, but are often reluctant to actually do the work of learning how to read and write the language fluently.

Confessions of a Teen TAB-aholic

I took up the bass at the age of 14, largely because I was too scared to talk to girls and thought it would help (it didn’t). I started having lessons at school with a guitar teacher who played a bit of bass and straight away I was introduced to TAB – what a great system! It tells you exactly where to place your fingers and out comes Green Day… What could be better?

Eventually, I found myself arriving at music college at the age of 19 with plenty of technique but very little musical ability. I suddenly found myself confronted with notation and realised that I had to get my reading together quickly if I didn’t want to languish at the bottom of the class. Here are some strategies that helped me to get my act together – by the end of the first year, I had gone from zero reading ability to near the top of the class:

Five Tips for Better Sight Reading

 

1. Do it every day

If you don’t do it enough, then it won’t stick. Lectures didn’t start till 11am, so I’d get up at 7.30, make a big cup of green tea and get lots of notes in my face for an hour or so. You don’t have to put that much time in, but you have to do it regularly to have any hope of it becoming second nature (other hot beverages are also acceptable).

 

2. Separate Rhythm from Pitch

The two big variables that we’re dealing with are the pitch of the note and its duration, so when learning the fundamentals of reading notation it’s good to practise the two separately.

For pitch, I used to use Gary Willis’ Xtreme Sight Reading page on his website, which randomly generates rows of pitches for you to play through. The range of notes and the probability of accidentals can be adjusted depending on your pain threshold (EDIT: he’s now taken it down, if anyone can find it then please get in touch):

 

For rhythm, I used Louis Bellson’s Modern Reading in 4/4 time (link further down the page), which focuses on reading syncopation. No pitch variation whatsoever, but it explores almost every rhythmic possibility from the simple to the vomit-inducing.

3. Read with a click

The main secret to sight reading is teaching your eyes to look ahead of where you are in the music; if you’re looking at the note that you’re playing, then there’s no way that you can prepare for what’s coming up. The only way that you can really develop this is by using a metronome when practising and not allowing yourself to go back and fix mistakes. This is good practice for ‘real world’ reading situations, where you can’t go slow down difficult passages or go back and fix the wrong notes you just played.

4. Be Well Read

In order to become a well-rounded reader, it’s important to expose yourself to a lot of different material; if you read classical studies all the time, then your rhythm reading skills might be lacking when it comes to read that Tower of Power chart.

5. Don’t Just Read Bass Music

Try to read any sheet music you can get your hands on: piano/vocal scores, violin sonatas, trombone etudes – doesn’t matter what it is – and work out how to fit it on your instrument. The sad reality is that nobody really cares about the bass player, so you have to stop expecting to show up at a gig and be given pristine bass clef charts that are nicely laid out. This is particularly true if you do any sort of musical theatre or cabaret engagement – they probably won’t have the budget to buy in ensemble parts or the resources to have them written out, so most of the time you have to work from the rehearsal piano score. The MD will probably say something really helpful to you like ‘well, the bass is just the left hand of the piano isn’t it?’

If you’ve ever been in a piano score situation, you’ll know that trying to construct your own part is an absolute nightmare – your survival depends on having a firm grasp on notes outside your range (super low left-hand octaves) and treble clef reading. In fact, treble clef reading is something that I’d recommend to everyone because most of the musical universe operates ‘above ground’ and you never know when you might get asked to take the melody on a tune you’ve never seen before. It’s also a very useful skill if you’re into taunting guitar players, which everybody should be.

My Top Sight Reading Books for Bass

Here are some of my favourite books that have helped me to develop my sight reading; I’ve grouped them roughly by ability level, so hopefully there’s something for everyone. Since editions of some books differ between countries I’ve included separate links for US and UK where appropriate; environmental considerations aside, I’d recommend AVOIDING Kindle versions of these books, because in my experience the formatting of musical notation is always horrible. Opt for physical copies instead.

Beginner Sight Reading Books

1. Simplified Sight Reading for Bass by Josquin Des Pres (UK | US)

Although I trashed one of his other books in episode 1, I really like this one because it separates out rhythm and pitch to start with.

2. M.I. Music Reading For Bass by Wendi Hreschovic (UK | US)

Another good general method which drip feeds in accidentals, key signatures and other notational devices.

3. Modern Reading in 4/4 Time by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

This is a staple of drum instructional material, and it offers all musicians a great way to get their rhythm reading together without having to worry about pitch. This book is focused on developing skills in reading syncopated rhythms, starting with very approachable studies and building to horrible 32nd note phrases intersected with triplets.

4. New Method for Double Bass by Franz Simandl (UK | US)

I seem to talk about this book in every single post or video, but that’s because it’s the book that has had the biggest impact on the way that I approach the instrument in terms of technique, fretboard positioning and articulation.

Intermediate Sight Reading Books

If you feel like you’ve got a handle on the basics of reading and want to push your skills further, then these are worth a look:

5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (UK | US)

James Jamerson was basically the first electric bass virtuoso, and these transcriptions of his lines provide a great reading workout; tons of rhythmic activity, lots of 16th-note syncopation and plenty of chromaticism. A great source of vocabulary, too.

6. 113 Etudes for Cello by J.J.F. Dotzauer (UK | US)

This was suggested to me as a good alternative to the very popular Hanon Virtuoso Pianist book, which became very popular with bass players when Janek Gwizdala revealed that he’d used it to build his not-inconsiderable technique. These are a good stepping stone between Simandl and more intense classical studies, which we’ll get to later. Cello repertoire tends to be a great source of melodic reading material, but you’ll need to do some transposing unless you have a 5-string bass because the cello is written at sounding pitch, while the electric and upright bass are both octave transposing.

7. 6 Suites for Violoncello by J.S. Bach (UK | US)

I’ll put the Bach Cello Suites alongside this; tough to read and play and it seems like everyone just plays Prelude No.1 in G major, but Bach really knew a thing or two about thematic development so definitely worth a look – I’ve always approached them as long-term studies rather than everyday sight reading material.

Advanced Sight Reading Books

8 & 9. Finger Funk Workbooks 1 & 2 by Anthony Vitti

Anthony Vitti is a bass player who doesn’t get nearly enough time in the spotlight; he’s been teaching at The Berklee College of Music for decades and his books are some of the best around. His Finger Funk Workbooks are filled with demanding 16th-note lines, which can be a real challenge to both read and execute at tempo – studying these books is also a great way to develop your technique in a musical way.

10. Giovannini Bottesini Upright Bass Method (UK)

This is effectively a more advanced version of the Simandl book. Lots of technically demading studies that contain plenty of position shifts and detailed phrase markings, which will really put your articulation skills to the test.

Extreme Sight Reading Books

If you’re seasoned reader who’s feeling particularly masochistic, then here are 3 books to give you a real workout:

11. Odd Time Reading by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

Like the Modern Reading in 4/4 time, this takes a static pitch and moves it through almost every possible rhythmic permutation, except this time you have to do it in odd meters, and then the exercises start shifting between different odd meters. Horrible, but very nutritious.

12. 60 Melodic Etudes by John Patitucci (UK | US)

John Patitucci is one of a handful of players who is a true virtuoso on both upright and electric bass, so it’s no surprise to find that his books are challenging; the 60 melodic etudes are designed to get your ears used to the sound of the major scale modes over their diatonic chord types in all 12 keys. Practising these studies over a drone or a static chord also serves as a great ear training tool, as well as a hardcore reading and technique workout. As the book title suggests, the etudes aren’t that rhythmically taxing, but there’s a huge pitch range and – unless you’re playing a 6-string bass – you’ll need to do a lot of position shifts.

13. Sight Reading Funk Rhythms by Anthony Vitti 

Anthony Vitti brings the pain with this collection of studies that combine syncopated 16th-note funk rhythms with plenty of unexpected pitch variations; his favourite trick is to build a central motif and, just as you think you’re getting the hang of it, he throws in subtle variations to trip you up. The sheer amount of rhythmic and melodic variation in these studies makes them difficult to memorise, making them ideal for sight reading practice.

If you have a favourite sight reading book that I’ve left out of this list then let me know in the comments below.

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The Bass Player’s Book Club #1: Chops

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot…

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot Licks VHS tapes) and apps in the hope of getting my playing to sound the way that I want it to. I use each one for approximately 3 days before feeling the need to try something different, hoping that this one will somehow revloutionise my playing.

Solid advice? or snake oil?

The problem is that not all books are created equal; some are life-changing, some are mediocre, others are terrible. This series will take a detailed look at a handful of books that have had the greatest positive impact on my playing over the last 18 years; I’ll be covering a range of areas, including technique, reading, music theory, ear training and improvisation.

But before we get to the good stuff, I thought it’d be actually more valuable to look at the worst offender – the book that’s proved to be the biggest waste of time and that I’d urge everyone to avoid at all costs; it also ties in with many things that I’ve seen in bass education that upset me because they’re not only irrelevant but also potentially damaging (both musically and physically).

This video covers:

  • The book that I feel actually hindered my musical development rather than helping it
  • How to sniff out BS in bass education (and how to spot if a teacher is a witch…)
  • What you should be practising in order to develop your musicianship (hint: it’s not technique)
  • How to organise your fretting hand in a safe, secure and musical manner according to what you’re playing and where you are on the neck

There’s also a PDF of all of the exercises that I demonstrate in the video available here:

Music, Not Chops

 

 

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How I Transcribe

Transcription is a subject that’s very close to my heart and is something that I feel is incredibly important for developing nearly all areas of musicianship. Here’s (almost) half an…

Transcription is a subject that’s very close to my heart and is something that I feel is incredibly important for developing nearly all areas of musicianship.

Here’s (almost) half an hour of me explaining what I do, how I do it and why I do it:

Links to everything that I mention in the video are below:

How Habits Happen: 7 Ways To Maintain New Behaviours

Functional Ear Trainer App: iOS Android

Hearing and Writing Music by Ron Gorow (UK | US)

Change The Way You Hear Music

Modern Reading in 4/4 Time by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

Franz Simandl’s New Method For Double Bass (UK | US)

Dotzauer Cello Etudes (UK | US)

Standing In The Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson (UK | US)

Michael League Interview with Bass Lessons Melbourne (quote is at about 17:30 onwards)

The Complete Transcription Process by David Liebman

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How Habits Happen: 7 Ways to Maintain New Behaviours

How To Form Positive Habits (and Make Them Stick) One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive…

How To Form Positive Habits

(and Make Them Stick)

One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive behaviours that would improve my day to day life if I actually stuck to them. These include meditation, exercise and – of course – practice. In spite of the time I spend making video lessons and blog posts telling others how to do things better, I’m terrible at taking my own advice and although I can do a very good impression of an effective human being, I freely admit to being frequently disorganised, lazy and ineffectual.

Here are 7 strategies that I’ve found to be effective in disrupting the patterns of a master procrastinator; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose weight, increase your creative output or improve your bass playing, these tricks should work for just about any positive habit that you’re looking to form:

1.The Power of Daily Rituals

My working life is often unpredictable, which has led me to pursue a self-imposed structure as a means of creating order from chaos and to prevent going completely insane from juggling numerous projects. If you’re a self-directed individual and don’t have anyone telling you what to do and when to do it, then it’s vital that you create your own routine.

I try to begin each day with a series of small steps that are designed to ensure that I make the most of every day and don’t fritter away precious time pursuing things that aren’t important.

My Morning Routine

  • The first thing is that I do my best to get up early, regardless of how much sleep I may or may not have had – I find that the morning is the best time for me to go through my various rituals without interruption from the outside world, and that my willpower and focus are strongest at the start of the day. I’ve also found that if I do the right things in the first hour of the day, then I’m more effective later on.
  • I begin with journalling, which helps to clarify both what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – I write down 3 long term goals, and three things that I’m going to do today to move myself closer to those goals. At the end of the day, I come back and note 3 positive things – no matter how small – that I did today and 1 area that I could do better on tomorrow. Again, if you’re the one who’s in charge of your time then it’s really important to feel that whatever you’re doing is the right thing.
  • After the journalling I do some sort of mobility work and/or exercise, which is designed to mitigate the damage that I’ve done from 18 years of playing and 30ish years of having bad posture.
  • I then meditate for 15 minutes.

These steps help to get me in the right frame of mind (and body) for whatever work I have to do, and I find that I’m much more productive on the days when I complete them compared to days when I rush out of the house without having completed any of them.

I also have a morning playlist of music that puts me in a positive frame of mind which I listen to if I have to travel anywhere – this acts as a universal ‘reset button’ and is useful in getting into a good emotional state at short notice (see ‘resources’ for more on this)

2. Script Everything in Advance (Don’t Leave It To Chance)

I find myself much more likely to carry out a task if I’ve told myself exactly how and when I’m going to do it. This requires some forward planning, but it’s well worth doing as it prevents excuses as to why I haven’t done things.

Ideally, I’ll sit down for 10-15 minutes on a Sunday and script as much of my week as possible in advance in iCal; where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do. At the very least, I’ll spend some time each evening working out what I’m doing the following day and prepping for it – this removes the mental burden and wasted time taken up by deciding what you’re going to do when you get in the practice room or the gym in the spur of the moment.

The key with this is to allow yourself a degree of flexibility – things always take more time than you think they will, and tasks can be rearranged and rescheduled. It might be that you only have 10 minutes to spend on something that you wanted to work on for half an hour, but 10 minutes are better than zero minutes.

3. Quantify your goals

This may sound too obvious, but you want your habit to be easily verifiable – ‘have I done X today?’. It should be something that’s easy to do and it should have a very ‘black or white’ outcome – either you’ve completed the task or you haven’t.

Goal setting can easily become vague, so it’s important to be as specific as possible when identifying habits and outcomes. A classic one is ‘I want to get fit’ or ‘I want to lose weight’; a better way to phrase these goals and track your progress towards them would be as follows:

  • I will lose 5kg of fat by a certain date

Or (even better)

  • I will work out 4 times per week
  • I will give up alcohol/bread/refined sugar for 30 days

If your progress towards a goal is easily measurable, then you’re more likely to stick to the new habit.

4. Start With 5 Minutes

Another obvious point, but if you really want something to become a habit, then you absolutely have to do it every single day – I’d say for at least a month. To that end, if you tell yourself that you’re suddenly going to start practising 8 hours a day or radically alter your diet overnight then you’re setting yourself up to fail, because those things require a massive change to your existing lifestyle; you don’t begin training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the first day.

It’s much better to start small and give yourself an easy win – as you strengthen whatever habit it is you’re trying to develop then your minimum time will naturally increase.

To phrase it in other ways: A diet that is 70% of the way to being perfect but has 100% compliance is way better than a diet that is 100% perfect but only a 50% adherence rate. Doing 5 minutes of sight reading every day is much more effective than trying to do an hour but only managing it on one day a week.

Whatever you’re trying to do, start with 5 minutes, but do it every day. Some days you’ll manage more, which is great, but stick to that minimum standard of 5 minutes.

5. Make Your New Habits Visible

Our natural tendency as human beings is to avoid hard work and gravitate towards lying on the sofa in front of Netflix while inhaling Doritos. We’re also really good at justifying to ourselves why we don’t have to do the work. The way around this is to hold yourself accountable for your new habits, even if it’s just to yourself. Make your new habits visible and track your progress. Here are some techniques:

The ‘Chain Method’ (aka the ‘Calendar Method’)

Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic that the way to be better than the competition is to have better jokes, and the way to have better jokes is to write material every day – he suggested putting an X on a calendar on every day that you write – pretty soon you have a chain going and build up momentum; that calendar serves as a powerful motivator to not break the chain.

Author Austin Kleon has a neat variation on this that can be found in the ‘Resources’ section.

The Habit Sheet

This week, I’ve been trialling a variation on this which I got from a friend of mine who is an NLP trainer – it’s called a ‘habit sheet’ and it works like this: you list the habits that you want to develop along with a box for every day of the week. Simple, but it works – I’ve kept this in my laptop case to make sure that it goes everywhere with me and it’s been surprisingly effective in making me get things done. Writing out the sheet rather than printing it off seems to have a more powerful effect – this is also true of the journalling – when I write things down they tend to have more of an effect than if I type them out on a computer.

6. Create A ‘Cadence of Accountability’

Having a blog, website or a Youtube channel is a great way to force yourself into doing things regularly – I try to get something new out at the end of every week, whether it’s a transcription, blog post or a video lesson – it doesn’t really matter what it is, the important thing is that I’m creating what author Cal Newport calls a ‘cadence of accountability’.

I do a similar thing with music – I get together once a week with like-minded musicians and absolutely butcher jazz standards. None of us grew up playing jazz and our main gigs are all mainstream pop stuff, but we’re holding each other accountable and if I haven’t learned the new tune for that week then I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting down 2 other musicians. It also makes me works on certain things more because I don’t want to totally embarrass myself when it comes to the bass solo.

7. Don’t Go It Alone

Related to accountability is making sure that someone else knows about the habit that you’re trying to form – they’ll act as your ‘sponsor’ and check in with you. Having to make excuses to someone else apart from yourself is much harder, so make your new habits as public as possible to increase the chance of making them stick.

 

Resources

These are books/websites that I’ve found useful in clarifying goals, changing behaviour and staying motivated:

Daily Rituals by Mason Curry – This book details the daily routines of numerous prolific artists, writers and composers and offers a fascinating insight into what makes great minds tick.

The Daily Stoic – This is also an essential part of my morning routine containing short pieces of wisdom on how to deal with daily life. If you are prone to complaining or falling into a negative mindset then this is a must.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – The chapter in thos book titled ‘Building Your Trigger’ was the inspiration for the morning playlist.

The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast – sure, he’s really quite annoying, but he does interview some extremely successful people and gets them to disclose their secrets to being effective; an absolute goldmine of information AND totally free.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – If you only read 1 book on this list, make it Deep Work; this is pretty much my Bible for getting things done and staying on track.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – Ever avoided doing something creative? This explains why and helps you to stop sabotaging your own progress

Getting Things Done by David Allen – A time management book for serious productivity nerds; whenever I use the methods in this book I definitely feel less overwhelmed by the things on my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list.

Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge – pdf version of the ‘calendar method’ explained above in point 5.

Habit Sheet – my friend JB is not only a great drummer, he’s also a certified NLP trainer who occasionly posts some very useful and insightful blogs. This is where I stole the ‘habit sheet’ idea from.

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