I started my school’s jazz band recently and I really struggle playing with them. It’s just really different to playing by myself alone, where if I make a mistake I can just go back and keep repeating and practicing it. And there’s no practicing there, they just put the sheet music in front of them and start perfectly playing a song they haven’t heard before whilst I just sit there not being able to play even if it’s the most simple bassline ever. I was never taught how to sight read and have only been taught bass tab and I’ve been playing bass for nearly 4 years. It’s so embarrassing and humiliating being there when I can’t play anything and I look so stupid and everyone there is so talented but I don’t want to quit because that would be even more embarrassing and I want to get good at it.
When I first started playing guitar and bass I started out as an ear player playing mostly rock. As my tastes broadened and I got interested in playing other styles, jazz in particular, I realized that learning how to read and also learning theory and harmony were going to be very important to my development. It sounds like you are at this point right now. If you are in a jazz band that means you are probably getting charts that have written bass lines and also some chord changes. Studying harmony will help you understand how to navigate chord changes. Here are some tips to help you along with reading notes:
First, guidance makes things go much more quickly and smoothly. If you can, get a bass teacher that can teach you the basics of reading if you don’t already have one. If for whatever reason you can’t get a teacher you can still improve on your own.
Find a good method book. It could be a classical book like Simandl or something more in a more jazz or contemporary vein. IMPORTANT: If it has Tabs, PUT IT BACK ON THE SHELF. Tabs are generally not a part of any study that will help you become a serious musician and I believe they are detrimental to learning how to read. Spend time reading through the book, learning the staff and making connections in your brain between the staff and your instrument.
Read anything related to bass you can get your hands on. Bass parts, cello music, the bass clef of piano music, the bass clef of pop sheet music, etc. Even reading rhythms from drum and percussion parts while playing a single note is useful. Make yourself sight read by using a metronome at a slow tempo and not stopping once you start.
If your band director is not aware of your difficulties explain your situation to her/him. Ask her/him if you can get the music a day or two in advance to prepare until your sight reading improves. Also ask if they can provide any music you can take home to use for practicing sight reading.
Another thing you can do is write things down that you know and can play on staff paper. Try and find someone to check your work. It is important to get that perspective. When we learned to read in school we also learned to write as well.
Everyone has their own journey becoming a musician. It’s possible that many of the other musicians in your band started out with a book in front of them so to them reading is more second nature. Those same people may have a little more trouble learning how to improvise than someone who starts out playing by ear. I say this so you don’t get discouraged that you’re not as good a reader right now. You will certainly improve if you work at it over time and be thankful you made the effort.
Written music has basically two aspects, unrelated until they come together on a sheet. Possibly three - where those notes live on your instrument.
One is the rhythm, the other pitch. It's not easy trying to decipher those dots when you're not used to it. Reading music for guitar and bass, I manage quite well, but now I'm expected to read piano parts it's more than twice as difficult!
Learning to sightread: for starters, you need to be able to put any notes you do play at the correct timing in the bar. A simple beginning for this, in your situation, would be to be totally aware of where beat 1 is, while playing, and just concentrate on that one note. And, quite often, for bass, it's 1 on 1. In other words, playing the root of the chord on beat 1 of the music. If nothing else, you should feel where that is - if not, count like heck - and either read the written note, or play the root of the prevalent chord. A bit of a cop-out, but at least it'll keep you going in a dire situation!
So, rhythm first. Most of what you'll play is 4/4, so get used to counting those 4 beats - not just 1-2-3-4, but also 1& 2& 3& 4&, and if the piece is slow enough, 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a for each bar. That in itself will help to decide where you need to play each note. Get any bass music, and initially don't worry about pitch, but get used to where each dot needs to be played, and play it all on one bass note.
Knowing where each note actually is on the bass is obviously paramount, so you need to, if you don't already, to be able to find those notes without hesitation. As soon as my students sit down, I might ask them to find 4 A notes, or 4 F♯ notes, not too much to expect after a few weeks of lessons.
Next would be to translate those dots into where they're represented on the bass. That's one of the tricky parts. It'll help if you don't put the chart directly in front of you, but to the left, so you can see both chart and fretboard simultaneously. You're not a piano player! Being able to say the names of said dots will help a lot, as you will be able to correlate names on sheet to names on fretboard more quickly. That's the most difficult part.
Knowing your scales and arpeggios (the bass's diet) will help the above paragraph's ideas tremendously, and I can't stress to everyone that that's one of the main reasons for knowing them.
Other ideas I use are having students write out parts they hear, sort of reverse sightreading. Again, start with the rhythm side, decide on a key, then try to write out the dots. Knowledge of intervals is pretty useful here.
Returning to here and now, the next cop-out would be to not only play the 1st note in each bar, but another one after, say beat 3, which often exists. That way, with an unseen piece, you're at least joining in with the rest of the band.
John mentions those blessed with a good ear, good enough to listen once and play it back. Maybe that's you. Those are often not-so-good at sightreading, often feeling the necessity isn't there. It's got me out of many holes, and I've only ever played with a handful of guys who were excellent at both. But, nevertheless, listen to what's going on. This will usually give you the rhythm of what you need to play - often the bassline is in a pattern.
None of this will happen overnight, but once you crack it, you'll get more offers of posts than the guys who can't sightread, so keep at it. Bit by bit! Sorry it's a long answer, but it's a long subject that's so important it can't be summarised in a few sentences! Failing, or including all that, a teacher may be able to guide you along the road - although I've not come across many who dedicate as much time to sightreading. More like 'take this away and learn it for next week'. Think about it, though - once you're a great sightreader, you'll never have to 'learn' another piece!
I'd like to address the social and motivational elements:
they just put the sheet music in front of them and start perfectly playing a song they haven’t heard before whilst I just sit there not being able to play even if it’s the most simple bassline ever. ... It’s so embarrassing and humiliating being there when I can’t play anything and I look so stupid and everyone there is so talented but I don’t want to quit because that would be even more embarrassing and I want to get good at it.
You're not alone! Pretty much anybody who has ever played with others has had the feeling of "I feel out of place because I can't do what those around me can." (In fact, it's not just musicians; many people experience Imposter Syndrome or similar feelings in any workplace.)
I want to encourage you to ask yourself a few questions:
- Is this experience "good" for me? I'm guessing it is. If, perhaps, an ensemble is so far beyond your level that you're learning nothing, or if the experience is so negative that it's harming you, those are situations to get out of. But if you're benefitting... stay!
- Are the negative forces internal or external? In other words—is everybody else actually hostile toward me, or am I just creating these feelings myself? I mean, students can be jerks (and even so can band teachers), but chances are the discomfort is all on your side. If you are in fact welcome in the band, then you probably have people around you who want to help you succeed, and should rely on them.
As for how to learn to sight-read, you've got a lot of good advice already. It's something you "learn by doing," even more so than other musical skills. If I could add one detail to other answers, it would be to "scaffold" your approach. Start simple, then add complexity. My favorite book for building sight-reading skill for violin starts with just 3 or 4 neighboring pitches, all in quarter notes. As you play through them, you start training your eye and mind to associate a certain line or space with a certain pitch, and with a certain fret. You turn the page, they add another pitch. A few pages later, you get eighth notes! Dozens of pages later, you might have dotted rhythms, or triplets, and the pitches might contain wider interval leaps. The principle is: you're not just "learning" these skills with your cognitive brain; you're training your eye, hand, and reflexes. Train each little aspect of musical complexity one at a time.
I think that given the situation you describe, you are in over your head. I urge you to speak to the jazz band director and explain where you are in your progress learning to read music. I don't think there is much point in you trying to keep up with the ensemble on all their pieces. That sounds frustrating for you, and frankly you probably aren't contributing much to the group. But don't quit! Talk to the director and show that you are willing to work and I'm sure you will be a welcomed participant in this ans many other ensembles.
If your director is decent at their job, they will suggest some resources to help you. If I were your director, I'd suggest the following: 1.I'd give you one easy piece to work up with the group. Probably a blues form piece with a repetitive bass line. 2.I'd ask you to spend all your other rehearsal time (when the group is working on other pieces) in a practice room working independently on reading skills. 3.I'd set aside a separate time to work 1 on 1 with you to support you as you work on reading. 4.I'd help you find a private teacher.
This all assumes that your director knows what they are doing, cares about you, and has the time to help you.
An analogy: how did we learn reading (or talking)?
Probably a combination of, e.g.:
- letters, words, compounds, vocabulary
- phrases, sentences, grammar
- content, context, meaning
It‘s similar here. No matter, which book, videos or hints you find on sight reading, you want to make it quick to remember and hard to forget. A versatile tool for this is Anki.
There may be some decks you can download from ankiweb to start, but you certainly will want to create your own ones, fitting your personal needs and preferences, like:
- tab vs sheet notation
- different staffs
- notes and chords vs sheet vs tab vs fretboard vs sound etc.
You can combine all these with said tool. And it will ask you from all these perspectives.
First most important tip is: Don't quit!
Second most important tip is: Don't quit!
Start looking now for good sight reading material that is suitable for your level. Don't look for magic solutions like "Sight read bass in 7 days", consider it the beginning of a life long quest. Ask your teacher for method books and sight reading material recommendations.
In the beginning it's probably more important to think of it as "reading bass (F) clef" rather than music specifically for string bass or bass guitar. Doing so will allow you to expand your sight reading material to things like the bass clef of cello music, piano bass, etc. Collections of hymns, simple Baroque/Classical era dances, and numerous introductory piano methods, can then be used for sight reading by simply reading the bass clef only.
Understand from the beginning that sight reading pitch is about relative interval changes. For example, don't read "A" up to "D", instead read "up a perfect fourth", and then learn all the interval changes of the fret board.
Of course the other main aspect of sight reading is rhythm. Keep in mind you don't necessarily need to practice that on bass. You can also do things like foot tap/hand clap, or count out loud, to work on just the rhythmic aspect of reading.
Play slowly. You might be surprised - or discouraged - by how much you need to slow down your playing to read properly. Don't worry about that. Just slow down by a lot. Playing and reading with an unbroken flow of good rhythm and tempo is much more beneficial than trying to play too fast and failing. You want to reinforce good playing.
When reading a piece for the very first time, don't just think of it as a "dot to dot" endeavor. Review the entire piece for and look for critical areas in the score. What is straight forward, what looks tricky? Where are the phrases and melodic segments start/end points? As you practice more, try to imagine both the fingering and the tonal sound of the passage. Remember, work with material that fits your level so that you can do all of these things. You want to be able to look at the music and really start to imagine how it will sound and what your hand movements will be to achieve it.
Practice basic scale and arpeggio patterns. Most music is built of chord and scale elements. If your hands can play that stuff automatically, it makes sight reading easier. Think about the intervals involved and their location on the fret board. If you can find a basic method book for those kind of drills, and you look at it while you play, it will help reinforce the reading behavior.
A sight reading test will use something you have never seen before. But that doesn't mean you cannot practice reading material that is familiar. Reading familiar music is nice way to reinforce reading skills. Similarly, you can practice reading some selection of music over a period of a few days. Make the focus about not memorizing but reading the score. Re-reading music gives you a chance to develop a more "strategic" approach. When you have a bit of familiarity with the music, you have some mental breathing room to focus more on larger patterns and reading ahead of what you are playing.
Don't quit. Get lots of material for your current level. Devote a daily time slot to focused reading. 20-30 minutes a day for 1 or 2 months - with appropriate level material - should deliver you noticeable improvement and encouragement.
You have to practice practice practice.
I remember as a kid my piano teacher would just draw notes on a staff and I would have to name them. (There are apps out there that can help you practice this)
I practiced this with her all the time. Then you have to start playing simple pieces via sight reading in parallel.
Find material that you want to play and hopefully that will make practice more fun.